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Community Preservation Act creates great divide

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Carol Gumbart, the environmental resource planner for the town of Westford, on the Timberlake Property, which was purchased using Community Preservation Act funds.
Carol Gumbart, the environmental resource planner for the town of Westford, on the Timberlake Property, which was purchased using Community Preservation Act funds.(Jim Davis)

Saving a 200-year-old lens from a Rockport lighthouse, expanding the Town Common in Middleton, and rehabilitating affordable housing for the elderly in Beverly are some of the projects that have benefited from a surcharge on local property taxes.

Since the Community Preservation Act went into effect in 2001, the 1 percent to 3 percent extra that homeowners in 161 communities are paying has helped bankroll about $1.6 billion for more than 8,100 projects across the Commonwealth.

But not every project that's proposed wins approval, and not every municipality opts into the program, which has its share of ardent champions and vocal critics.

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This fall, Chelsea and Danvers will vote on adoption. In Billerica, a group is collecting signatures in hopes of putting the CPA on the ballot.

In Gloucester — where a 1 percent CPA surcharge began in 2008 — residents have approved funding for 80 units of affordable elderly housing in an old grammar school; replaced historic lead glass windows at the Cape Ann Museum; renovated City Hall and its historic clock tower; and restored several Depression-era Works Progress Administration murals.

"I think the CPA has made a significant contribution to enhancing community life in Gloucester," said Maggie Rosa, chairwoman of the City Hall Restoration Commission. "Not only has it helped to protect our open space and revitalize our buildings, it's also reenergized people's enthusiasm for the community.

"People are so proud of what's been achieved through the CPA."

Jack Buba, treasurer of the Marblehead Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, said the real problem with the law is that the CPA fund has become a go-to source for towns to finance projects that they can't pay for in the usual manner: general revenue or by borrowing.

The state Legislature, Buba said, has expanded CPA-approved project categories, so that the money may be used for parks and maintenance. Originally, the funding could be used only for the preservation of historical sites and open space or to promote affordable housing.

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Marblehead voters have twice rejected attempts to pass the statute.

"If you look at the projects being funded with CPA money, they're something you would expect normal taxes to pay for," Buba said. "The CPA has become just another general tax outside of property tax. It's used as an end-run around the limits of Proposition 2½, leaving more money in the town budget for raises and benefits."

Communities north of Boston that have adopted the CPA include Beverly, Boxford, Chelmsford, Dracut, Essex, Georgetown, Gloucester, Groveland, Hamilton, Malden, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Medford, Middleton, Newburyport, North Andover, Peabody, Rowley, Rockport, Salem, Somerville, Tewksbury, Tyngsborough, Wenham, Westford, and West Newbury.

These cities and towns are eligible to receive a share of the state Community Preservation fund, money collected primarily from fees paid to registries of deeds, though in recent years the fund has been augmented by state budget surpluses.

North of Boston, Somerville raised the most money — $2.6 million — in fiscal 2016 from its 3 percent CPA surcharge. The city also received the most from the state: $829,456, or 31.5 percent.

The statute allows the money to be spent on open space, including recreational areas; historic preservation; and low and moderate income housing. In some instances, CPA money pays for projects outright, while in others, it serves as seed money to leverage hundreds of thousands of dollars in state, federal, and private grants.

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In Beverly, for example, $20,000 from the CPA — coupled with $200,000 in city funds — served as the anchor to secure state and federal funding to complete $8 million in capital improvements to Harborlight House. The project created affordable housing with onsite support for frail senior citizens living on modest incomes.

In Nahant, $233,820 was approved this year to repair the town wharf. In Hamilton, residents last year OK'd investing just over $1.3 million in a new pool, bath house, operations building, and deck area at Patton Park; the $2 million project was funded in partnership with Wenham, which contributed $672,000 from the CPA.

In Essex, CPA funds have been used for a number of projects, Town Administrator Brendhan Zubricki said. He noted the success of past projects — including the Town Hall restoration, preservation of the Hearse House, reconstruction of a cemetery fence, and digitization of Civil War records — helped convince voters to increase the surcharge from 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent starting July 1.

Not all attempts to allocate preservation money to local projects have been successful. In Boxford, for example, an attempt to spend $693,000 to build West Commons — a development that called for four affordable housing units and a new baseball field in west Boxford — went down in 2007. The following year, an attempt to repeal the CPA in town failed.

Stuart Saginor, executive director of the Community Preservation Coalition, said all similar attempts to rescind adoption of the preservation act have failed.

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And voters in only a handful of towns — including Manchester-by-the-Sea — have successfully reduced their tax surcharge.

Campaigns to reduce the extra tax have failed in Newburyport, Rockport, and Nahant.

Some critics have voiced concern that the CPA tends to benefit wealthy communities at the expense of less affluent ones. All communities contribute to the state Community Preservation fund through local real estate transactions at the registries of deeds, but only those that adopt the CPA get a share of the state money.

Getting the maximum match available from the state fund is one reason supporters are urging Hamilton voters to increase that town's surcharge from 2 percent to 3 percent, a change that would bump the median homeowner's annual surcharge from $119 to $178.

Tom Catalano, chairman of Hamilton's Community Preservation Committee, said the group has done an analysis and believes a 50 percent increase in the local surcharge will result in a 100 percent increase in state funding. He hopes to put the proposed increase before voters this fall.

"No one is pro-taxes," Catalano said. "We're pro-smart spending."

A sampling of Community Preservation Act projects in the northern suburbs (with the year voters approved funding):

Beverly: $20,000 toward the $8 million rehabilitation of the Harborlight House to create affordable housing, with on-site supportive services, for frail seniors (2014).

Chelmsford: $34,500 for exterior restoration of the town-owned, 1802 one-room schoolhouse adjacent to Forefathers Cemetery (2012).

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Dracut: $3 million for the development of affordable housing at 144 Greenmount Ave. (2015). The project is in need of additional funding before the former dairy farm can be transformed into housing.

Essex: $45,000 to help replace potentially dangerous electric panels (2015).

Georgetown: $15,000 to continue an ongoing effort to preserve and archive the town's historic records (2013).

Hamilton: Just over $1.3 million to build a swimming pool, bath house, operations building, and deck area at Patton Park (2015); Wenham contributed $672,000. Manchester-by-the-Sea: $12,000 for the resurfacing of the Brook Street tennis courts and the addition of a backboard (2013).

Middleton: $100,000 to complete construction of Middleton's Town Common (2015).

Nahant: $233,820 for the rehabilitation of town wharf (2016). Rockport, Gloucester: $10,000 from each municipality to help restore and preserve the 1861 Fresnel lens from the Thacher Island lighthouse (2013), now on display at the Cape Ann Museum.

Westford: $350,000 to help purchase the Timberlake Property for open space, passive outdoor recreation, and conservation (2014).

Source: Community Preservation Coalition and local officials.


Brenda J. Buote can be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.