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Officials mull open space act

Preservation vs. tax hike weighed

There could be millions of dollars to spend on open space, historic preservation, and affordable housing in Westborough if the town adopts the Community Preservation Act, a law designed to help cities and towns raise money for those needs.

But that same legislation could also raise homeowners' property taxes by as much as an average of $145 per year, said a nonprofit group that supports the act.

Weighing the balance between those two factors will be the order of business for a new study group officials expect to form next month, said Selectwoman Leigh Emery, who is also a member of the Open Space Committee.

"I am very concerned about the preservation of open space, so I am very interested in what the act might do," Emery said. "If I had to bet one way or another, I probably would say I would [support the act], but I don't really know."

Officials have contemplated the preservation act before. In 2002, Town Meeting members rejected a proposal to put the act before voters on a ballot.

Former officials who supported the preservation act at the time said the town didn't make a concerted effort to promote the value of the law. "That was a half-baked effort that was done by individuals," said George Barrette, a selectman at the time.

Emery said enough time had passed to revisit the preservation act. But now, she said, she wanted the study group to examine every side of the issue.

"We have younger people coming into town with young kids who have come because of the character of the town," she said. "I think more of them are paying attention to voting on things."

Established in 2000, the Community Preservation Act allows cities and towns to receive state grants to match funds raised by a special surcharge on property taxes that cannot exceed 3 percent. Towns may exempt the first $100,000 in a property's value from the surcharge.

The combination of state and local cash can pay for purchases of open-space, historic preservation projects, and to build or maintain affordable housing. At least 10 percent of funds raised each year must be spent or set aside for each of those three areas. The remaining 70 percent may be spent on any of the three areas, on general recreation projects, or be saved for the future.

To receive state matching grants, Westborough would need to create a community preservation committee that would implement and spend funds raised by the act. The committee is permitted to float bonds for large projects, using the promise of future surcharge revenue to pay off the debt. Towns may revoke the act five years after they adopt it.

If Westborough adopted a 1 percent surcharge on property tax bills, homeowners would spend an additional $48 a year on average, raising a total of almost $380,000 a year in preservation funds before receiving state funds, said Stuart Saginor, executive director of the Community Preservation Coalition, a nonprofit group that supports the adoption of the act by municipalities.

A 2 percent surcharge would cost the average homeowner $97 in higher annual property tax bills and yield almost $760,000. A 3 percent surcharge would cost the average homeowner $145 and raise more than $1.1 million a year. The average Westborough property tax bill last fiscal year was almost $6,200, according to the town assessors office.

Since the preservation act became law, municipalities have received state grants that match their funds by 100 percent, said Saginor. But because the state pays for its grants with Registry of Deeds fees, and the Massachusetts housing market is in a slump, Saginor expected the state to fund Westborough's preservation funds by only 50 percent or less in 2009 if the Town Meeting were to adopt the act and started collecting funds next year.

But that percentage would increase if the housing market boomed again, Saginor said.

Already, 127 communities have adopted the act, Saginor said. He said the preservation act was a community's best tool in halting sprawl, promoting smart growth, keeping reminders of its past intact, and meeting its requirements under state law to provide affordable housing.

Because Westborough is experiencing rapid growth, it should adopt the act, Saginor said.

"It's an opportunity for a community to decide what they want their community to look like 50 or 100 years from now," he said.

Emery said she hoped the Open Space Committee would vote to create the study group at its meeting scheduled for Aug. 15 and soon after appoint members who would get to work next month. The group's goal, she said, would be to decide whether to recommend that the spring Town Meeting place the question on a ballot next year.

Emery said the study group would nail down how much Westborough stood to gain from the preservation act, which projects might be funded, and how residents feel about the surcharges.

A petition signed by 15 percent of the town's registered voters could also put the act on the ballot.

One resident said she was leery about higher property taxes, but said she would be open to learning more about the preservation act.

"I'm reluctant. Property taxes are so high now," said Terrie Ayres of Elm Street. "I would need to put more thought into it."