Town Council Regular Meeting, 4/22/19

The big issue was: the Community Preservation Act!

When I arrived for the Council meeting, I was surprised to find the Town Room buzzing with the energy of a comportment of third graders. They were there from Crocker Farm Elementary with their teachers to propose building a series of “Read around Town Book Boxes.” These small kiosks will be located next to several bus stops in town and hold books that can be freely borrowed. Each of the impressively well-spoken children took a turn before the Council, arguing for the continued importance of print in the digital age. Not only was it good fun for the audience and Council to share their enthusiasm, it was a nice way to get kids involved in local government. The Council voted unanimously to support the project and the children who participated left knowing that they had made a difference in town.

Procurement Officer Anthony Delaney then presented an introduction to the Community Preservation Act (CPA). The CPA allows municipalities to add a surcharge on property taxes to create a fund that can be used for four things: protecting open space; historic preservation; affordable housing; and outdoor recreation. When I was on Town Meeting, the CPA struck me as being a significant way for towns like Amherst to fund a range of important projects that might not otherwise get funding.

Upon moving to Massachusetts in 2006, I was surprised by how well persevered so much of the local landscape was. The towns around Boston were filled with forested, winding lanes nestling colonial houses that kept the historical character of New England alive. In contrast, because of the unchecked power of local developers like the Toll Brothers, sprawling strip malls and McMansions have blighted the Philadelphia suburbs where I grew up.

Massachusetts’ legislators originally developed the CPA to help towns better manage development by preserving their existing character. In 1983, Nantucket began levying a tax to protect its open spaces and endangered landscape in the face of increased development, which became a model championed around the country. Over the next several decades, state lawmakers proposed legislation based on Nantucket’s bylaw that allied land conservation with affordable housing and preserving local history. The CPA passed in 2000.

Participation in the CPA is optional. Residents of a municipality can choose to adopt it by special ballot, which Amherst did in 2001. This added a surcharge, originally 1% and now maxed at 3%, to property taxes. To provide incentive for participating in the program, the State matches the funds that municipalities contribute. CPA money is held separately from the general town budget and can be used to issue bonds for more expensive projects covered by its provisions.

Although many towns in Massachusetts have adopted the CPA, others have rejected it. Residents of South Hadley have consistently voted against the program. Some critics say that CPA projects should be paid for with existing taxes and that levying extra money for projects means that their town’s leaders aren’t being fiscally responsible. Others say that the State’s matching funds, which are drawn from all municipalities, are being funneled from poor areas that don’t participate to wealthier communities that do.

Amherst’s Community Preservation Act Committee helps the town decide how to spend its CPA money. As per the new charter, the Town Manager now has appointing authority over the Committee, which contains nine voting members, one each from the Conservation Commission, Historical Commission, Planning Board, Leisure Services and the Housing Authority and four town residents. Residents, Committees and Town Departments can apply for eligible projects. Unfortunately, there is currently no information on the application process on the Committee’s website and the Act is only effective if it solicits good programs for funding. The deadline for this year has passed and the Committee is in the process of making its recommendations for FY20 to the Council.

When I was a Town Meeting Rep, I was struck by the broad range of projects that CPA money supports. The town has used it to restore the Tiffany stained glass windows at the Unitarian Universalist Society meetinghouse and conserve the only extant dress worn by Emily Dickinson. It pays for numerous land purchases that preserve open space and hiking trails. It has contributed to building and maintaining affordable housing at Olympia Oaks, Rolling Green and various Habitat for Humanity projects in town. (The largest proportion of CPA funds spent in Amherst have gone toward affordable housing!) The CPA budget I voted for in Town Meeting included funds to build new play structures at Groff Park and rehab the swimming pool at Mill River Recreation Area.

The CPA Committee is in the process of submitting its final recommendations to the Council. The draft proposal it presented at this meeting included a number of open space land acquisitions, further money for Groff Park and Mill River and borrowing half a million dollars to help build studio apartments for very low income residents. The CPA’s importance is evident in this range of projects. It allows towns and cities to preserve their long-standing character while helping to provide affordable places to live so that a broader spectrum of people can enjoy the sense of place that such protection engenders.

The Council has the authority to diminish funding for recommended projects (down to $0) but not add money or new projects. The Finance Committee will be reviewing the CPA Committees’ final recommendations on May 23rd.

For a fuller account of the history of the CPA and its impact see: Matthew Zieper, “The Massachusetts Community Preservation Act.” The law itself can be found here.

Updated 5/6/2019: A previously published version of this article erroneously stated that Town Council has appointing authority over the CPA Committee when the Town Manager does.