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Community Preservation Act in Action in Aquinnah, Mass.  

12-09-2015 17:35

The Community Preservation Act (CPA) is a law that allows cities and towns in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to add a small surcharge to local property taxes to acquire and protect open space, preserve historic buildings and landscapes, create and maintain affordable housing, and create new parks, playgrounds, and recreational fields. It also provides significant state matching funds—up to 100 percent—to communities that have adopted the Act.

The law went into effect in December 2000. To date, 103 communities across the state have adopted the CPA through ballot measures. These cities and towns have spent more than $186 million on CPA projects, protecting 5,700 acres of open space, creating 730 units of affordable housing, and preserving more than 280 historic sites.

Adopting localities have approved more preservation grants than any other type of CPA funding, investing more than $40 million in preservation projects. According to Dorrie Pizzella, executive director of the Community Preservation Coalition in Boston, “CPA has emerged as the single largest source of preservation funding in the Commonwealth.” Municipalities have used this funding to revitalize aging city and town halls, libraries, schools, firehouses, commons, cemeteries, monuments, canals, bridges, lighthouses, and other municipally owned historic buildings and landscapes. “Having the CPA has enabled communities to respond quickly when a resource is threatened and to access other state and federal grant programs that typically require a local match,” Pizzella says. Projects have included repairing and preserving architectural features, and making renovations to meet ADA requirements and safety codes. CPA funds have also gone toward purchasing and preserving historic properties in private or nonprofit ownership, completing historical and archeological surveys, and purchasing preservation easements.

One of the first towns in the Commonwealth to pass the CPA was Aquinnah (formerly Gay Head), a town of 400 registered voters on the western tip of Martha’s Vineyard. Its intention was to use the CPA as a tool for developing much needed affordable housing. But when one of its most significant historic landmarks, the Edwin Vanderhoop Homestead, suddenly went up for sale, the town found an unexpected benefit to having passed the CPA.

The Edwin Vanderhoop Homestead sits on 6.25 acres of grasslands at the height of the town’s famous clay cliffs. It was built during the late 1880s by a prominent member of the Wampanoag tribe—which the archeological record shows to have occupied the area for some 10,000 years—and had remained in family ownership.

When it was put on the market in spring 2004, the seller immediately received several offers. Concerned that a significant building and landscape could be lost, members of the Aquinnah Community Preservation Committee contacted the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, a publicly funded conservation organization, to explore the possibility of a joint purchase. The interested parties met that same day, and within two weeks the Town’s offer of $2 million on the Homestead was accepted.

Once the Town took title to the Homestead, it sold a permanent restriction to the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank on the surrounding conservation lands, allowing the Town to retain full control over the building and the .75 acre beneath it for, ultimately, just $218,000, while the Land Bank ensured that the remaining 5.5 acres would be reserved for public trails, community access, and sound conservation management. In conjunction with the acquisition, the Town voted to restore the Homestead for use as a museum and cultural center, operated by a Wampanoag group. The center will inform Vineyarders and visitors about the history and continued presence of the Wampanoag people, and about the town’s natural and cultural history.

“Put simply, this project would not have happened without the availability of CPA funds,” emphasizes Derrill Bazzy, chair of the Aquinnah Community Preservation Committee. “The development pressures here are crushing. We’re competing with powerful market forces. But once we had ownership of the house, we had the time to figure out how to make it all work.”

Though still undergoing restoration, the Homestead is already garnering recognition, recently receiving the Massachusetts Community Preservation Coalition’s award as the most creative example of the use of Community Preservation Funds for Historic Preservation statewide over the last five years. It has also received a funding award from the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Publication Date: May/June 2006

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Author(s):Mary Elizabeth Pratt