Monday, March 28, 2016

Missing out on the Community Preservation Act

The Community Preservation Act was signed into law in Massachusetts about 15 years ago. The purpose of the law was to encourage and to assist communities in preserving open space, creating affordable housing, and conducting historic preservation. To utilize the CPA, residents of a community would have to impose a surcharge of up to 3% on their property taxes. As an incentive to do this, the state would match the funds raised by the surcharge. To fund the matching amounts, the state imposed a surcharge on recording fees at the registry of deeds. Almost all documents carry a $20 surcharge (municipal lien certificates have a $10 surcharge and homesteads and state and federal tax liens are surcharge-free).

In today’s Boston Globe, op-ed columnist Renee Loth urges the city of Boston to adopt a CPA proposal filed by two city councilors (“Boston is losing out bynot adopting the Community Preservation Act”). Here’s how the column begins:

Those lucky folks in Acton. Over the past several years, they have purchased more than 30 acres of farmland and open space, created a wildflower garden and accessible boardwalk at the Acton Arboretum, and started work on their section of a 22-mile rail trail from Lowell to Framingham. In Gloucester, residents have leveraged funding for 80 units of affordable elderly housing in an old grammar school, replaced historic lead glass windows at the Cape Ann museum, and restored Depression-era WPA murals at City Hall. In Cambridge, they have preserved hundreds of affordable rental units that were about to expire, stabilized an eroding slope at Fresh Pond to protect drinking water, and transferred millions of dollars into a housing trust fund. All these communities – and 157 others – recognize the value of protecting their economic, environmental, and cultural assets through the state’s Community Preservation Act.

She spends the rest of the column arguing that it is short-sighted for Boston to continue to ignore the CPA.

You could say the same thing about Lowell. Because even the slightest property tax increase creates much angst in Lowell, it seems unlikely that the voters—especially the small percentage who actually vote in city elections—would volunteer to increase their property taxes, even if the amount of the increase was matched by the state.

What makes it even more short-sighted for Lowell to forego the CPA is that it’s not really the state that’s providing the matching funds; it’s the property owners of Lowell. From 2008 through 2015 here at the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds, we have collected $9,328,900 in Community Preservation Act surcharges for an average of $1,166,112 per year. Although the district consists of ten communities (Billerica, Carlisle, Chelmsford, Dracut, Dunstable, Lowell, Tewksbury, Tyngsborough, Westford, and Wilmington), Lowell accounts for 22% of all documents recorded.

Given those numbers, property owners in Lowell have contributed $2,052,358 to the Community Preservation Fund, all of which has benefitted communities like Acton, Gloucester, and Cambridge. Maybe it’s time for the property owners of Lowell to get some return on their CPA investment.

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