West Tisbury selectmen mull changes to CPA


West Tisbury selectmen at their regular meeting February 14, discussed the ins and outs of the Community Preservation Act (CPA).

At issue was how the town might go about reducing the surcharge that town real estate taxpayers contribute, or even drop out of the program altogether.

Ron Rappaport, town attorney, was on hand to describe how that might be accomplished. At first, town officials thought that the town had agreed at town meeting to participate in the program, but that turned out not to be the case. The confusion on that score was cleared up later in the week.

Town voters will consider a warrant article this spring that asks them to reduce the current three-percent surcharge. But any effort to drop out of the program would require a decision by voters on a town election ballot.

The CPA program was designed to help towns address three key needs: Affordable housing, open space acquisition and historic preservation. State CPA funds come from a county deeds tax paid on real estate transfers, while local funds come from a surcharge on property tax bills.

As part of the enabling legislation, towns can decide the amount of the surcharge levied on taxpayers. When town voters agreed to enroll in the program five years ago, they agreed to the maximum surcharge allowed, three percent.

At the time, the state matched locally generated funds by 100 percent. But the state has since struggled to maintain that level, and the matching rate for West Tisbury and other towns has gradually declined.

Last year the matching rate for West Tisbury was 43.6 percent, according to town accountant Bruce Stone.

The enabling legislation also allows a town to review the terms of the CPA program after five years, when voters can decide if they want to keep the same terms, lower the surcharge, or drop out.

Because that five-year period is now coming to an end, selectmen invited Mr. Rappaport to attend their meeting last Wednesday and describe what it would take to change the terms of their CPA agreement with the state.

Chairman Richard Knabel emphasized that the selectmen did not necessarily endorse lowering the surcharge or dropping CPA. “We’re not saying we think that’s a good idea. We haven’t as a group said anything on that . . . we only want to put the question to voters,” he said.

Asked by a member of the audience if any individual members supported leaving the program, selectman Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter raised his hand.

“When it was a dollar-for-dollar match, even I thought it was a good idea,” he said. “But because of the reduction, it’s kind of lost its excitement. A lot of the things we spend CPA money on we could fund through warrant articles. It’s an additional tax you pay first, before we appropriate things.”

Mr. Rappaport said that to drop out, the town would have to follow the same path it took when accepting CPA participation. “You have to get out the same way you got in,” Mr. Rappaport said.

Voters adopted the program five years ago at the annual town election.

Following the meeting last week, town administrator Jen Rand explained that revoking the CPA would require a question to be placed on a town election ballot and agreed to by voters.

At least five percent of registered voters must sign the petition to place it on the ballot, Ms. Rand said. Theoretically, that could happen this spring, but organizers would need to get busy to meet the ballot deadline.

Last Wednesday, Mr. Rappaport also explained what would happen if the town did drop out of CPA.

All money already allocated would have to remain in the CPA account and would have to be used for one of the three purposes for which it was originally approved.

If the town sold a property bought with CPA funds, it would still have to be used for one of those three purposes, although any rental income derived from properties bought with CPA money would go back into the general fund, Mr. Rappaport said.

Voters will have a chance to lower the CPA bite. Selectmen purposefully omitted a specific amount with the expectation that a number will come in the form of an amendment from the floor.

In other business, selectmen agreed to extend the commercial shellfish season from Feb. 28 to April 27. Shellfish advisory committee Virginia Jones said poor weather has limited opportunities for fishermen.

“Many fishermen haven’t had the opportunity to go out. It’s been either ice on the pond, too cold, too rough, or it’s been sleeting or snowing . . . this would give the fisherman a couple more viable opportunities to go out and get some oysters.”

Selectmen unanimously approved the request.

Selectmen also reviewed a legal opinion from Mr. Rappaport regarding the dirt bike track at the Nip ‘n Tuck Farm. His four-page legal opinion concludes the track is not an acceptable accessory use to the farm.

On February 10, the zoning board of appeals overturned a ruling by town zoning officer Ernest Mendenhall that the dirt bike at the Nip ‘n Tuck did not violate town bylaws.