Updated September 27, 10:55 am
With funds from the Community Preservation Act, some of Chilmark’s signature stone walls are no longer mostly a pile of rocks, Gay Head Light still guides mariners to safe water, and Edgartown’s town bell still peals off the hours from the Old Whaling Church.
The Martha’s Vineyard Camp-Meeting Association tabernacle once again refracts heaven’s rays, the Tashmoo Spring building is no longer a crumbling eyesore, and West Tisbury is developing a plan to keep its Mill Pond from drying up for good.
These and dozens of other local projects were funded from the Community Preservation Act (CPA), which provides money to preserve history, acquire open space, support affordable housing, and develop recreational facilities.
“I think it has done a lot of good,” said Margaret Serpa, Edgartown selectman and member of the town’s community preservation committee. “We’ve met the purpose of it.”
While most agree with the act’s goals, some question the three percent surcharge on property taxes that fund the projects, and the dwindling percentage of matching funds contributed by the state from fees assessed on recording deeds.
Recent amendments to the act will provide immediate additional benefits to Island towns, community preservation committee members say. The changes may also entice larger urban areas, most of which have not adopted the CPA, to sign on.
“One of the goals of the CPA was to try to find a way for more cities to come into the program,” said Stuart Saginor, the executive director of the Community Preservation Coalition, an advocacy group that supported the latest changes in the law. “We knew the legislature was unlikely to make the changes, unless we were proposing something to level the playing field.”
Mr. Saginor said that Island officials greeted the changes with enthusiasm during an informational meeting last week.
While adoption of the CPA is entirely up to voters in each community, critics point out that large urban areas generate most of the fees from real estate transaction recording, but in many cases they receive no CPA funding. Smaller communities with high property values receive most of the funds, according to a 2007 Harvard University study. The study’s authors say the imbalance results in money flowing out of communities which most need it, and into those that might already have resources for preservation, housing, and recreation.
Times are changing
The most significant amendment to the Community Preservation Act loosens the requirement for fixing up town parks and recreation facilities with CPA funds.
In 2008, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on a lawsuit brought by residents of Newton, who challenged the city’s use of CPA funds to improve two public parks.
The state’s highest court ruled that CPA funds could not be used, unless the park was originally purchased with CPA funds.
The new legislation makes it legal for a town to improve or rehabilitate parks with CPA money, even if the facilities were not purchased with CPA funds.
Now, with the approval of voters at a town meeting, towns can replace recreation equipment, repair existing equipment, and build new facilities.
That issue was an obstacle for Oak Bluffs, which considered using CPA funds to improve youth sports facilities in local parks.
“I think the changes, especially in regard to conditions for open space and recreation, will be a great benefit,” said Adam Wilson, Aquinnah town administrator, and a member of the Oak Bluffs Community Preservation Committee. “Now, having the ability to rehabilitate recreation areas, which has been a real sticking point for Oak Bluffs with the Veira Park Little League fields and the desire to fix the basketball courts (in Niantic Park), the language is now there.”
Also changed was language covering support of community housing initiatives. All Island towns, and many others around the state, voted CPA funds for rental assistance programs. There were conflicting legal opinions about whether the act allowed such contributions to existing rental programs, because the money was not used to acquire an asset.
The new legislation clarifies the legal language, and makes it clear that CPA funds may be used to fund rental assistance programs.
The rental assistance program administered by the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority for all Island towns was once funded by donations, but it is now funded entirely through CPA funds voted by the separate towns.
Another change in the law allows for a mix of revenue resources in local towns. Instead of assessing a three percent surcharge on property taxes, the new legislation gives a community the option to reduce that assessment to one percent, and dedicate other revenues, such as meals or rooms taxes, to fund CPA projects.
Wealthier, more rural areas, including all Cape and Island towns, were quicker to adopt the legislation.
Most of the state’s larger cities, including New Bedford, Worcester, Springfield, Boston, and most cities surrounding Boston, have not adopted the act.
Some speculate that if larger cities join smaller towns in utilizing CPA matching funds, it could mean fewer dollars to go around for towns currently receiving matching funds.
“It ultimately could lead to less funding,” Mr. Wilson said. “As more and more cities adopt CPA, there could be less and less funding from the trust fund.”
State legislators approved the Community Preservation Act and then Governor Paul Cellucci signed it into law in 2000. It sprang from a desire by many suburban and rural towns to preserve the character of their communities, in the face of rapid development and commercial growth. It is loosely modeled on successful land bank programs in communities including Martha’s Vineyard, and the original land bank program on Nantucket.
It allowed communities which adopted the act to collect a surcharge on property taxes of up to three percent. The state matched a percentage of that money from fees collected when legal documents are recorded at the registry of deeds in each county.
The funding formula for matching funds from the state is complex. Each community is weighted equally in the first round of annual funding, when 80 percent of the state funds are awarded. Smaller and more rural communities are given higher preference in the second and third rounds of funding, when the remaining 20 percent of the trust funds are awarded.
In the early years of the Community Preservation Act, Island towns received a 100 percent match for the three percent property tax surcharge.
As more and more communities adopted the act, and as real estate sales and home construction plunged in recent years, the amount of fees collected for recording legal documents fell sharply, and the state cut the percentage of funds it matched.
In March, the Department of Revenue estimated that CPA communities will get 22 percent in matching funds this year, or 22 cents for each dollar they collect from the property tax surcharge, in the first round of funding.
With real estate transactions trending upward, that estimate could be revised before the final percentage is determined.
The formula favors small communities, so Vineyard towns are likely to get a higher percentage of matching funds in the second and third rounds of funding.
The base percentage of 22 percent is likely to increase in the next fiscal year. In addition to making some signficant changes in the legislation, lawmakers voted to add an extra $25 million from the state’s budget surplus to the CPA trust fund. Though lawmakers intended to make it an annual addition to the CPA trust fund, state finance officials say the legislature cannot commit future budget surpluses, and must vote the amount each year.
Community Preservation Act projects are recommended to voters by local community preservation committees, and they need approval of town meeting voters. The projects are often the subject of vigorous debate, and some have proved more controversial than others.
In West Tisbury, $2,156 was spent on a plan to build a path beside Old County Road, before the project was cancelled.
In Oak Bluffs, more than $50,000 was spent on engineering plans to create baseball fields on property owned by the town’s wastewater department, but when bids came in to complete the project, all the bids were significantly higher than the CPA funds allotted. Oak Bluffs is currently appealing to other towns for additional CPA funding for the facility, which would be used by youth baseball teams across the Island.
Voters have questioned whether public funds designated for historic preservation should be used to restore church windows, and whether affordable housing developments should include any commercial component, such as the old library project in Oak Bluffs, which includes three affordable housing units and a drugstore.
In recent years, as taxpayers have struggled to pay property taxes in the face of a recession, some have questioned the three percent surcharge that funds the largest part of CPA projects.
The original legislation provided a way for communities to revoke CPA, five years after implementation, through the same procedure as it was adopted. In the case Aquinnah, that would require a town meeting vote. All other Island towns adopted the act when 5 percent of registered voters petitioned to get CPA adoption on the ballot, and voters approved it. If 5 percent of voters petitioned to revoke the act, the question would go before voters in a new election.
Advocates say the relatively low threshhold is an indication that voters are happy with the act.
“It’s just grumbling,” Mr. Wilson said, referring to Oak Bluffs. “When the town adopted the CPA, everybody was gung-ho. It was a 100 percent match, how could you argue? It has gone down significantly. After five years, anyone has the right to petition, to call into question the continued use of the CPA or a reduction of the surcharge. No one has ever put together an organized effort.”
Mr. Wilson and others say that local town departments submit almost all of the applications for CPA funds. “There is a definite need to get more word out to the public about what the CPA is, and what type of funding is available,” Mr. Wilson said. “I wish there would be more public input, more public interest, for example, more bike paths, other types of town-wide projects. Anyone could do it. The CPA application is open to any resident of the town.”
This article was updated to reflect a correction about the procedure for revoking CPA.