CPA Turns Five in Newton

This year, Newton passed the five-year mark in its experience with the Community Preservation Act. The CPA was adopted by the voters in 2001. A lot has been accomplished since then. This article traces some of highlights of the first five years and takes a look ahead at the next five, based on some forward thinking by the Community Preservation Committee.

Adoption of the Act came at a fortuitous time for Newton, enabling the city to take advantage of a number of remarkable one-time opportunities, including the preservation of more than 25 acres of open space at Kesseler Woods, the restoration of Newton’s three historic burying grounds, the purchase of Angino Farm, and creation of 100 units of community housing. Besides Kesseler Woods and Angino Farm, two key milestones for the Conservators, our organization was instrumental in the acquisition of the Forte property at Dolan Pond – a triple win in the form of open space, historic preservation and three units of community housing – and the Wilmerding property that expanded the Cohen Conservation Area off the Hammond Pond Parkway. We also worked to enhance public use of the Flowed Meadow Conservation Area and supported the restoration of Houghton Garden.

The city’s adoption of CPA has made possible a broad range of other projects as well—a total of about 50 projects amounting to roughly $15 million dollars.

With the benefit of a five-year perspective, it is a good time to look back on the city’s experience with CPA and draw some conclusions as well as identify patterns and trends. Here are some that the Community Preservation Committee thinks are important as it looks ahead to the next fiscal year and beyond:

  • Community Sponsors: A majority of projects, raging from large open space and housing projects to pocket parks and classrooms, were sponsored by community organizations. Groups like the Newton Conservators, CAN-DO, the Newton Historical Society and Friends of Albemarle have become community partners with the CPC. Beyond demonstrating support, broad-based community participation carries the additional benefit of promoting wide agreement about project scope and value.
  • Balance of Interests: The balance of spending among the four CPA funding categories has been reassuring over the first five years. No interest area has dominated. In many cases, it has been possible to accomplish more than one purpose with a single project (as in the case of the Forte property). In addition, the CPC has been conscious of balancing the impact of CPA funds on villages and areas throughout the city.
  • Leverage: In addition to receiving the full 100% state match in each of the first five years, the city has leveraged a significant multiple of private and public money with CPA funds. Most of this money would not have been available to the city if CPA were not there to fill funding gaps for community housing, match state historic and recreation grants, and encourage private groups to raise their own funds.
  • Planning: Broad-based planning and longer-term thinking has been a byproduct of the CPA in Newton. With dedicated funds available to spend for specific purposes over a period of years, the CPC has encouraged and benefited from long-range plans for recreation facilities and city-owned buildings to identify funding priorities. With diminishing funds, there will be a continuing need for city commissions, boards and departments, along with community groups and organizations, to define priorities with even greater clarity.
  • Phase-one studies: The CPC has funded phase-one studies to enable applicants to better prepare restoration and preservation proposals. More “studies” have been approved than there is CPA money available to cover over the next several years, using early estimates of downstream costs as a basis for projection. Recognizing that not all projects will come to fruition, the Committee will give weight to these projects as it considers the range of applications before it.
  • Declining funds: Commitments made over the first five years, combined with the projected decrease in the state match beginning around fiscal year 2009, will mean a tighter budget and reduced number of projects approved in future years. Annual bonding costs for projects like Kesseler Woods and Angino Farm will eat up a portion of future revenues. Also, the Committee has commitments to multi-year projects such as the burying grounds, homebuyer assistance and Stearns and Pellegrini Parks. The CPC anticipates important new requests for funding in all project areas. This will require a tight focus on projects of significant priority with, at the same time, an effort to remain open to projects of exceptional value to the community.
  • Multi year projections: Large-scale or complex projects often require several years to complete. For this reason, the CPC has chosen to break some projects into separate funding phases. For example, the burying grounds project has four phases, the Flowed Meadow project has five phases, the Stearns and Pellegrini project has three phases, etc. Other projects have been bonded, requiring repayments over multiple years. These commitments enable the Committee to plan ahead with greater certainty. A three-year budget has been created, making a variety of assumptions about revenues, state matches and funding priorities.

So what can we expect for the next five years of CPA in Newton? In terms of the involvement of key community organizations like the Newton Conservators, funding of important projects across all funding categories, and leveraging other funding sources, the CPC anticipates results that are just as impressive when we take a look back in 2011.

But there will be some important differences. Unless the Legislature finds a way to replenish the state-matching fund, which is declining as more communities opt into CPA and as the housing market recedes (the fund is supported by deed-filing fees), the amount of money available to spend in each fiscal year will fall. Bond payments and other long-term commitments will also put a squeeze on available funds. That means fewer projects will be approved and the competition for funding will become much more intense. Some great projects will not be funded at all or they will have to wait for future funding. Organizations like the Conservators will need to make their case in very compelling terms in order to get even the best projects approved by the CPC and the Board of Aldermen.

We can also expect new ideas and approaches to develop as the Community Preservation Committee turns over in the next three years. Term limits built into the ordinance enabling the CPC will require replacement of original CPC members beginning in 2007 and continuing into 2009. Change can be good, but the Conservators and others will need to monitor this process carefully and offer its input regarding suitable candidates to ensure that its perspective is represented among new committee members.

Finally, groups like the Conservators will need to be very clear about their own spending priorities and communicate those priorities directly and regularly to the CPC and the Board of Aldermen. In the next five years of CPA in Newton, it won’t be enough to take advantage of market opportunities as they present themselves. This means looking ahead to identify and cultivate a climate of receptivity for projects, presenting a clear and compelling outline of community benefits for targeted opportunities. Such an exercise should parallel and feed into the city’s own update of its Open Space and Recreation Plan, due in 2007, as well as the annual and long-term CPC planning process.

This translates into a three-part agenda for the Conservators:

(1) work to replenish the state CPA-matching fund,

(2) influence the appointment of CPC members who share our view of CPA funding priorities, and

(3) plan and convey open space priorities for the next 3-5 years.

Acting on this agenda will lead to results that reflect our best hopes while avoiding the agony of missed opportunities.

Doug Dickson

(Doug Dickson is a Member and former Chairman of the Newton Community Preservation Committee and a Past President of the Newton Conservators)