Select Board considers pursuing adoption of Community Preservation Act as neighboring towns have done

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Request would go on warrant, ballot for voters’ decision

Westborough town iconBy Susan Gonsalves, Contributing Writer

WESTBOROUGH – Westborough has the opportunity to generate funds for projects related to open space, historic preservation, affordable housing development and outdoor recreation. To do that, it could follow the lead of neighboring towns and adopt the Community Preservation Act (CPA), said CPA Exploratory Committee chair Jenn Doherty.

Doherty, who also chairs the Historical Commission, gave a presentation about the state law passed in 2000 during the Select Board’s May 25 meeting.

The Act allows communities to raise money in order to create a dedicated fund to be used for certain purposes. The state provides matching funds yearly through fees it collects from the Registry of Deeds.

Doherty said that towns like Westborough pay into this trust fund even if they haven’t adopted CPA. Therefore, by not adopting the CPA, residents are currently not getting the benefits that are possible from it, she emphasized.

“Any time you buy or sell property or refinance a mortgage, you’re paying into this fund that goes to other communities,” Doherty said.

To date, 187 cities and towns in Massachusetts have adopted the CPA. 

Under the Act, affordable housing, open space/recreation and historic preservation efforts must each get 10 percent of a community’s funds. Five percent of the money can pay for administrative costs, while the remaining 65 percent can be used as the community desires within the three categories.

The money is raised through a surcharge applied to the amount property owners pay in taxes. The surcharge is not calculated relative to the valuation of a property. 

In Westborough, the Exploratory Committee looked at a formula whereby it would add $50 (or less) to the average single-family tax bill using a .5 percent level charge.

Westborough’s average valuation is $536,264. The law allows communities to use an exemption and subtract $100,000 from that total. Another exemption eliminates the surcharge for low-income taxpayers and seniors.

With those conditions, an average tax bill of $8,088 would increase by $40.

Cities and towns can set the surcharge rate anywhere up to three percent. Communities at that three percent level receive more money from the state in matching funds, Doherty said.

With a .5 percent surcharge, Westborough would generate $324,812 from all classes of property.

The corresponding fiscal year (FY) 2021 state match would total $93,048.

Doherty reviewed data from neighboring towns and showed how much money they generated with the CPA fund and state matches over the years.

Grafton adopted the Act in 2002 and with a 1.5 percent surcharge, had revenues totaling $7,789,285 to date.

Northborough started in 2001 with a 1.5 percent rate and totaled $9,511,707.

Southborough began in 2003 at one percent and generated $6,542,924.

Shrewsbury adopted the Act last year with no financial information yet.

“Adopting CPA is really an opportunity to invest in Westborough’s future,” Doherty said.

The process works by the Select Board deciding on a surcharge percentage. From there, the item would be put on a Town Meeting warrant where it must be passed by a majority. Then, the matter would be placed on the next municipal or state election ballot. If the majority of Westborough voters approved that vote, the town would establish a committee to manage the fund.

That committee would be comprised of representatives from the Planning Board, Conservation Commission, Historical Commission, Historical Association, and Board of Park Commissioners (possibly Open Space in Westborough’s case). Four additional at-large members could be added to the committee.

Annually, it would be that group’s charge to review applications for projects and develop a list of recommendations to present to Town Meeting.

Doherty said if the town adopted the CPA earlier, it could have funded things like the rehabilitation of Town Hall and the Forbes Building; construction of the Hennessy Cricket Pitch and pickleball courts; purchase of the state hospital and Despres properties; and construction of town-owned affordable housing at Rogers Road, among other projects.

Going forward, sample projects could include construction of affordable housing in vacant and underutilized buildings, rehabilitation of the Harvey building, repairs to historic gravestones, an updated inventory of historical resources and more.

The Exploratory Committee is looking at a timetable of presenting the issue at the 2022 spring Town Meeting and then placing a question on the fall state election ballot.

Select Board members spoke about the importance of public outreach prior to that happening.

“The more public input, comment and understanding, the better,” said Select Board Chair Allen Edinberg.

Vice Chair Ian Johnson noted that hearing opinions from residents in advance of Town Meeting during public hearings is advantageous. 

“It makes things go smoother and better in terms of affirmative votes,” he said.