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Somerville to vote on tax surcharge to fund open space projects

Posted by Marcia Dick  August 20, 2012 08:42 AM

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Somerville voters this fall will consider whether the city should become one of the few, large urban communities to accept a property tax surcharge to fund preservation projects.
By an 8-0 vote with three members absent, the Board of Aldermen last week approved a request by Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone to place a proposal to adopt the Community Preservation Act on the Nov. 6 state election ballot.

The move comes in the wake of a legislative overhaul of the 12-year-old law that was undertaken in part to make it more attractive to cities.

Urban communities have been slower than more affluent suburban towns to embrace the CPA, which allows municipalities to impose a property tax surcharge of up to 3 percent  — currently matched at 22 percent by state funds — to support affordable housing, open space, historic preservation, and recreation projects.

The recent overhaul of the law includes changes to make it easier for communities to use CPA money for recreation projects, and to tap other revenues for their preservation fund as long as they have adopted at least a 1 percent surcharge.

Currently, 148 communities have adopted the CPA, including 20 in this region; three of those -- Gloucester, Newburyport, and Peabody -- are cities.

The Somerville proposal calls for a 1.5 percent surcharge, with an exemption on the first $100,000 of the value of residential properties and for those qualifying for low-income housing or low- to moderate-income senior housing. The Somerville plan also exempts the first $100,000 of value for commercial properties.
Curtatone said adoption of the CPA “was always something attractive to me.” But he said his interest was heightened by the recent revisions to the law, which Curtatone and other members of the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition have strongly backed.

“We are one of the most densely populated cities in New England, so the opportunity to create new open space doesn’t really exist,” Curtatone said. “What’s attractive about the amendments are that they now allow us to use the Community Preservation Act to renovate parks and open space. We have an aggressive recreation plan in the city and this will greatly enhance those efforts.”

Curtatone added that the CPA would make it easier for the city to achieve the goals it established in its recently adopted 20-year SomerVision plan.  

“That plan talks about open space, recreation, historic preservation, and affordable housing,” he said, noting that adoption of the CPA is a recommendation of the plan.

Alderman at large Jack Connolly supports Somerville’s adoption of the law.

“It fits into the overall planning for the next 20 years,” he said. “There isn’t a lot of open space in our community and we are only 4.1 square miles. This just gives us a little more flexibility to preserve the city’s existing natural and historic assets.”

City officials estimate the surcharge would generate $1.1 million in fiscal 2014, and add about $33 a year to the tax bill of an average single-family owner-occupied home currently valued at $405,000.  Somerville has a 30 percent tax exemption for owner-occupied homes.
Local CPA revenues are matched by a state trust fund generated from fees at registries of deeds. Until fiscal 2007, that match was 100 percent, but the base distribution level has since fallen to 22 percent. Legislators added $25 million to the state’s share next year, to be drawn from year-end surplus funds.

John Laidler can be reached at

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