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CPA used most for open space and historic preservation

  • Forbes Library on West Street in Northampton on January 8, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Academy of Music on Main Street in Northampton on January 8, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • 112 Holyoke St. in Easthampton on January 8, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Funds from CPA were used to make the Housing Authority offices at 112 Holyoke St. in Easthampton, pictured here on Jan. 8, handicap accessble in 2011.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Dickinson Court on Liberty Street in Easthampton on January 8, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Forbes Library on West Street in Northampton on January 8, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Academy of Music on Main Street in Northampton on January 8, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • 112 Holyoke St. in Easthampton on January 8, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • 112 Holyoke St. in Easthampton on January 8, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Dickinson Court on Liberty Street in Easthampton on January 8, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

Community Preservation Act money has helped preserve 4,100 acres of open space in the Pioneer Valley since 2000.

In Hampshire County, Northampton leads the 19 communities in preserving the most land, at 531 acres, followed by Hadley, with 486 acres, and then Belchertown, with 440 acres.

In Easthampton, CPA funds have been allocated to preserve or create 114 units of affordable housing, followed by Amherst, where 75 affordable housing units were created and then Northampton with 61.

These are among the statistics revealed in a report released by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission a dozen years after the Community Preservation Act was enacted. The PVPC’s report offers details on how the 19 CPA communities in the Pioneer Valley have used the $35.1 million it generated.

Communities have used the state-matched funding — raised by levying a local property tax of between 1 and 3 percent — to pay for projects involving open space, affordable housing, historic preservation and recreation, the report states.

But it also acknowledges that there has been a “stagnation” in the number of Valley communities taking the leap in recent years, possibly because of a reduction in state funding for the program.

“The Community Preservation Act is really a tool that has allowed communities to put money toward important functions like preserving open space, historic sites and recreational land, and preserving and creating affordable housing — projects that may not have been able to meet their project funding goals on their own,” said Molly Goren-Watts, manager of the PVPC’s regional information and policy center, which compiled the report, released in November. The PVPC used CPA data municipalities reported to the state as of December 2011.

The 19 communities in Hampshire and Hampden counties that have adopted CPA since 2000 have raised a total of over $41.5 million, including both local tax dollars and matching state funds.

Of the $35.1 million allocated, $12 million, or 34.4 percent, was used for open-space projects. Historic preservation received $11.4 million, or 32.4 percent, recreation projects received $6.8 million, or 19.4 percent, and affordable housing got $4.8 million, or 13.8 percent.

Open space preservation

In Northampton, which leads they way locally in CPA spending on open-space projects, the feat is not surprising.

“Open space is probably one of the biggest reasons CPA passed in Northampton, and probably in other communities, too,” said Sarah LaValley, Northampton’s conservation, preservation and land use planner. “Everyone likes to see open space preserved, I think.”

LaValley said the city’s Planning Department has aggressively pursued land acquisition because it can use CPA dollars as leverage to secure other state funding. She gave the example of the preservation of the 80-acre Broad Brook Gap in the Broad Brook/Fitzgerald Lake Greenway. The city received a $326,400 state grant to purchase the property, after it pledged to use $273,000 in matching CPA funds.

Affordable housing lags

The report also notes that affordable housing projects “lag significantly” compared to the other CPA uses. Eleven of the 19 CPA communities have not allocated CPA funds for any affordable housing projects.

Goren-Watts suggests there may be a logical explanation for that.

The projects are costly, and communities may be saving up for them, planning to undertake them down the road, she said.

The report acknowledged that a perception that there is not a great need for affordable housing could cause some communities to overlook it.

That is not the case in Eastahmpton, where Easthampton City Planner Jessica Allan credits the Housing Partnership with the high number of CPA-funded affordable housing projects in the works. “These results are evidence of their leadership,” she said.

Like LaValley, Allan said CPA money has been key for affordable housing developers to use as leverage to secure other funding. “When the developer goes to the state for a financing package, they can show that the community has a level of interest in the project,” she said.

That was the case for Arch Street Development, which plans to put 50 affordable rental units in the former Dye Works building at 15 Cottage St. After the city pledged $200,000 in CPA funding to the project, it received state and federal tax credits and attracted enough investors to launch the $15 million project, expected to break ground this year.

Recreation projects

In the Pioneer Valley, 83, or about 14.6 percent of all projects, were recreational in nature, such as bike paths, parks, play structures and hiking trails, the report states.

Southampton has allocated over $1.15 million in CPA funds to major recreation projects. Community Preservation Committee Chairwoman Virginia Ahart said nearly $1 million was spent on the creation of athletic fields, including funds used to purchase the land on Strong Road and to design and construct the fields, which will be completed in the spring.

“I don’t think the Strong Road would have happened if it wasn’t for CPA,” Ahart said. “That’s the big one.”

The town also pledged $115,600 toward the purchase 26 acres of unused railbed to be used as a recreational trail, pending successful negotiations with the landowner, New England Railroad. The funding matches a $225,720 state grant the town received for the project in December.

Ahart said nearly half of the CPA projects the town has selected are historical preservation projects. Most of the historical preservation projects, ranging from gravestone replacement to restoring the roof of the town’s old schoolhouse, come with a smaller price tag, she said.

Over $500,000 in CPA funding was used in a $2 million project to transform the 1949 former Larrabee School building to the new Town Hall, finished in 2011. Reassured that some funding was coming from CPA, voters approved a $2.15 million debt exclusion to finance the project.

“I think the Town Hall would have been a hard sell without CPA funds,” Ahart said.

In the Valley, 45 percent of the 567 allocated CPA projects have been for historical preservation.

Meanwhile, the report also states that the number of communities enacting the CPA has dropped off in recent years. While 44 percent of Valley municipalities have enacted CPA, most did so years ago.

“The number of Pioneer Valley communities approving the CPA increased steadily from 2001 to 2008 but flat-lined in 2009 and 2010, with no communities approving the act and only one community approving it in 2011,” the report states. Between 2008 and 2011, only Brimfield and Pelham took it up, with Brimfield rejecting it and Pelham passing it. Westhampton voters also failed for the second time to adopt it when it was on the November ballot.

“We definitely saw a stagnation in communities passing CPA at the same time the state match was decreasing,” Goren-Watts said. “It was also during rough economic times, when it was hard to raise tax rates.”

From 2001, when the state match was 100 percent, it dropped steadily to 31.5 percent in 2011. Legislation passed in July 2012 added another $25 million to the CPA Trust Fund for matching, and communities seem encouraged by the commitment of funds, Goren-Watts said.

Ahart said that while there is always some “grumbling” from CPA opponents, she hopes the act is here to stay.

“Every so often people bring up trying to change it, but at least here, it didn’t get very far,” she said. “I don’t know if it will last forever, but for now, it seems the state is very supportive of it, and it’s done a lot already. It’s really helped.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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