Municipal leaders are pleased with new legislation that gives them more flexibility in tapping Community Preservation Act funds, even though it also restricts the use of those dollars for recreational projects involving artificial turf fields.
The state budget for the fiscal year that started July 1 includes an overhaul of the 2000 law creating the program, which lets cities and towns assess a property tax surcharge of up to 3 percent to pay for affordable housing, open space, recreation, and historical preservation projects. The local proceeds are supplemented by state matching funds.
Officials in several area communities, such as Acton, Bedford, Belmont, Needham, Newton, and Waltham, say they particularly like that the legislation greatly expands their ability to use CPA funds for recreation projects. They also welcome the $25 million in added state funds earmarked for the program next year.
But the revisions also included a ban on using CPA funds to acquire artificial turf for athletic fields. The change comes as more cities and towns are building the fields to keep pace with growing demand by local sports groups. Some communities previously used CPA funds for artificial turf fields.
Sudbury used its CPA program to help pay for the construction of Cutting Field in 2004, and the community field at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in 2006, according to Jody Kablack, the town’s director of planning and community development.
The revised law ‘opens the gates on projects that were just put on the back burner.’
‘This is a hugely helpful legislative change for communities like Needham that are fully developed and for which there is no land for us to buy or to create more recreational land.’
Kablack said both projects fell within the law’s requirements at the time.
But while it can no longer be used for artificial turf, CPA money can still be spent on other features of artificial turf projects, such as drainage and site preparation, according to Stuart Saginor, executive director of the Community Preservation Coalition, a statewide group that has been a key supporter of the law and the recent changes.
Saginor said that at hearings on the CPA overhaul bill when was it was first filed in 2007-08, some argued that CPA money should not be used at all in artificial turf projects because it went against the overriding aim of the law, to preserve a community’s natural assets. Others opposed such a restriction.
“This seemed to us to be a great compromise,” he said.
Local officials said they did not expect the new artificial turf rule to significantly hinder their use of CPA money for recreation projects, though some were critical of it.
“I don’t understand this restriction. It doesn’t make sense. But it is what it is,” Roland Bartl, Acton’s planning director, said of the new rule.
He said if Acton were to consider another artificial turf field project “and there is a way to put some CPA money toward it . . . I would imagine Town Meeting would do that.”
Newton dropped a plan to use its CPA funds to create an artificial turf field at Newton South High School several years ago after a group of residents opposed the move, saying that converting a natural field to a synthetic one was not a suitable use of the funds, and raised environmental, health, and other concerns with synthetic turf.
The city ultimately carried out the project but without CPA money, according to Bob Rooney, Newton’s chief operating officer.
The work went forward after the city agreed to redesign the project to meet environmental issues. A synthetic turf field was also installed at the new Newton North High without CPA money.
City resident Guive Mirfendereski, a lawyer who was among the opponents of the Newton South project, said he advocated for the new restriction on CPA spending, fand welcomes its inclusion in the law.
“I’m very pleased with that provision,” said Mirfendereski, who believes that it could be interpreted to preclude the use of CPA money for any aspect of an artificial turf field project.
“You could argue the word ‘field’ does not simply refer to the cover . . . When people are designing these things, they are designing an entire system, all the way from drainage up to the infill,” he said.
To date, 148 communities have adopted the CPA program, including 28 in this region.
The state’s contributions to the local programs are generated from fees at registries of deeds. Initially, the state provided dollar-for-dollar matches, but a decline in real estate transactions and the increase in participating communities chopped the figure to a base distribution level of 22 percent in recent years. The additional $25 million that lawmakers agreed to provide from the state’s year-end surplus is for next year alone, although Saginor said their intent is to provide it each year.
Municipal officials welcome the added state money, but most of their focus has been on the removal of what many of them have viewed as a nettlesome restriction in the law.
Previously, CPA money could be used to rehabilitate only those recreational assets purchased with CPA funds. The rule was clarified in a 2008 Supreme Judicial Court decision in a case stemming from Newton’s proposed use of CPA money to upgrade playgrounds at two parks, Stearns and Pellegrini. The new law removes that restriction, clearing the way for broader use of CPA money for upgrades to playgrounds, fields, and other facilities.
“This is a hugely helpful legislative change for communities like Needham that are fully developed and for which there is no land for us to buy or to create more recreational land,” said Needham’s town manager, Kate Fitzpatrick.
She said the town has identified 16 potential recreational projects that could now be candidates for CPA funding. She said a working group next month will begin prioritizing the projects.
“There is a pent-up demand here for projects . . . on existing town lands,” Bartl, Acton’s planning director, said of upgrades to recreation facilities.
Bartl said prior to the SJC decision, Acton had used its CPA fund for projects to improve facilities not acquired with CPA money, based on how it interpreted the law. But after the SJC case, projects still in the pipeline had to be put on hold.
He said he anticipates the town will now begin taking up proposals to use CPA money for those projects, citing the proposed construction of a pavilion in the North Acton recreation area as one likely candidate.
In Newton, similarly, Rooney said the legislative change “opens the gates on projects that were just put on the back burner and now have an opportunity to compete for CPA funding,” noting that many of those projects are included in the city’s five-year capital improvement plan.
Waltham Mayor Jeannette A. McCarthy said with the change in the law, her city can tap the CPA for citywide as well as ward-level projects. She said one possible project would be the creation of recreational facilities on the Fernald Development Center property, should the city acquire it.
Bedford Town Administrator Richard T. Reed said his community has “an interest in doing work on its recreational fields, to maintain them and keep them in a renewed state.” He said he anticipates proposals will now be offered to fund those projects with CPA dollars.
Peter Castanino, Belmont’s public works director, said the town has a variety of recreational projects it could now consider for CPA funding. He said those would include overhauling its century-old Underwood Pool, and improving its playgrounds, fields, tennis courts, and skating rink.