Community Preservation Comes Before Taxpayers at Annual Town Meeting

Gazette Senior Writer

Abbe Burt looks at initiatives such as the Community Preservation Act and the Community Housing Bank, and sees important ways of addressing the Vineyard's lack of affordable housing.

Richard Combra, an Oak Bluffs selectman, looks at the same initiatives and sees another tax on Island residents.

In April, voters in four Vineyard towns - Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and West Tisbury - will decide whether they side with Mr. Combra's fiscal pragmatism or the social idealism of Ms. Burt, an activist on the affordable housing front.

That choice will be made when voters take action on a proposal to adopt the state Community Preservation Act (CPA), which would fund affordable housing, historic preservation and open space projects through a property surtax and matching funds from the commonwealth.

"Housing that's affordable is the number one issue on the Vineyard this decade," said Ms. Burt. "To take a significant step in providing housing for people making up to 150 per cent of the median income bracket, now is the time we absolutely have to do something about it."

Only a couple weeks, Mr. Combra was staking out opposite turf in this debate.

"It looks to me like a vote for a three per cent override," he said at a meeting last month of the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen. Speaking of the state match, he said, "You can't get the state's money until you take it out of the pocket of Island taxpayers."

Two Vineyard towns - Aquinnah and Chilmark - adopted the act in 2001. In the years hence, the two towns have used money generated by the act to back proposals such as studies of open space in Aquinnah, and residential rental subsidies in Chilmark.

That same spring of 2001, however, Tisbury and West Tisbury shot down the CPA: on town meeting floor in Tisbury, and at the ballot in West Tisbury.

If approved, advocates say, the preservation act would generate $407,849 in local surcharges in Edgartown; $340,233 in Oak Bluffs; $347,591 in Tisbury; and $237,177 in West Tisbury. The median cost per household per year, according to the advocates, is $55 in Edgartown, $67 in Oak Bluffs, $71 in Tisbury and $86 in West Tisbury.

Also next month, voters in all six Vineyard towns will decide whether they favor a non-binding resolution to create a Community Housing Bank along the same lines as the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank. The proposed housing bank would fund through a one per cent tax on the seller in real estate sales. The land bank would administer the collection of the fees.

While the community preservation act would go into effect immediately in the towns that vote for it, the housing bank proposal would be sent as a request to the state legislature once all six Vineyard towns approve the CPA.

The housing bank, if approved by the state, would be returned to the Vineyard for a final ballot vote in each town.

A perceived lack of affordable housing on the Vineyard is driving the effort to adopt the CPA and the housing bank.

According to the Martha's Vineyard Community Housing Bank Coalition, the median price of a one-family home on the Vineyard has risen more than 300 per cent from 1995 through 2004, increasing from $228,000 to $727,000. The median income of a four-person household has risen 51 per cent in the same nine years, the coalition stated.

The housing coalition also stated that the CPA on the Vineyard could generate $2.3 million toward housing, with the housing bank generating another $2.3 million.

According to the coalition, examples of how CPA and housing bank funds could be used include rehabilitation of existing homes and apartments, purchasing land, building new homes and moving existing ones, creating employee housing and stabilizing rents. Housing funded through the programs would serve Island residents earning up to 150 per cent of median income in the county.

Each town that passed the community preservation act would create a nine-member committee to recommend to town meeting how to spend program funds. Each committee could choose to spend up to 75 per cent of CPA funds on housing. The committee also would act as that town's advisory committee to the housing bank commission.

Here's how the Community Preservation Act works:

Towns that adopt the act place a surtax of up to three per cent on existing property taxes. That means a property whose annual local tax bill is $2,000 would pay an additional $60 for the surtax. State matching funds are available only to those towns that vote the full three per cent surtax.

The act provides exemptions for the first $100,000 of property value. People who would qualify under state law for low-income housing, or low or moderate-income housing, would be exempt from the surtax.

A community preservation committee in each town decides how the money will be divided among the categories of affordable housing, historic preservation and open space. The committee must spend at least 10 per cent of the funds on each category, with up to five per cent of the total allowed for administration.

The committee is allowed, however, to hold off on spending money in a given year to set aside money toward a desired goal. The Chilmark committee, for example, has been stockpiling money and may tap into the funds for the Middle Line Road project.

The proposals then go before annual town meeting voters, who decide whether to approve the funding for the projects and amounts recommended by the preservation committee.

Here's how the housing bank would work:

The Martha's Vineyard Community Housing Bank would be modeled on the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank with a few twists. The housing bank fund would be funded by a one per cent tax on the value of real estate transfers above $750,000. Unlike the land bank where the buyers pays the two per cent fee, the seller would pay the tax for the land bank.

As the proposal now exists, a seven-member housing bank commission - consisting of a representative of each of the six towns, and a single representative of the state Department of Housing and Community Development - would administer the fund.

John Abrams, chairman of the Island Affordable Housing Fund, backs both the CPA and the housing bank initiatives. Together, they would yield up to $5 million a year, he said, and make a real difference in addressing the Island's gap in affordable housing.

Some Vineyarders oppose the proposals, however. Sharon Estrella, a member of the West Tisbury finance committee, questions putting more burden on the taxpayer. "They worry about people leaving, and yet with all of these tax [proposals], they're making it harder and harder," she said.

Glenn Hearn, chairman of the West Tisbury board of selectmen, said he probably will vote for the three per cent preservation fund proposal, but he rather would have seen the tax sliced into one per cent a year. "It would have much less of an impact," Mr. Hearn said.

"I'm in favor of affordable housing, but I'm afraid that three per cent will make it hard for the people of West Tisbury to vote for it," he added.

Over in Tisbury, selectman Raymond LaPorte said he wholeheartedly endorses the Community Preservation Act.

"We have an Islandwide affordable housing crisis on our hands that's locking out home ownership for the next generation," he said, adding that the Vineyard must begin using tools such as the CPA and the proposed housing bank to address the issue.

Officials in Chilmark and Aquinnah, the two towns that have adopted the community preservation act, give the legislation good reviews.

Warren Doty, chairman of the Chilmark board of selectmen, said the act has allowed the town to pursue half a dozen worthwhile projects. Mr. Doty said the act is especially appropriate for affordable housing on the Vineyard, where open space needs already are being addressed by the land bank.

"In Chilmark, we're into our third or fourth year," said Mr. Doty. "At the start-up, we had a very hard time understanding the rules of what we could and couldn't fund. Now, we're in a very good place."

Chilmark has used community preservation funds to bankroll a rental subsidy program, which has allowed the town to increase affordable housing without adding units; to engage in historic preservation at the old Menemsha School; to open scenic vistas and shore up stone walls through open space funding; and to set aside money toward the proposed Middle Line affordable housing development.

Derrill Bazzy, chairman of the Aquinnah community preservation committee, said the act has created a ready source of funds to address community needs.

So far, the program has been most successful in areas such as historic preservation, where the money is paying the mortgage on the purchase of the historic Vanderhoop homestead, and in open space, where CPA funds are covering the planning costs for the use of town-owned land near town hall.

Mr. Bazzy said the program also has allowed the town to bank money toward affordable housing initiatives, such as the funding of two resident homesites.

Compared with other towns, Aquinnah does not pull in much money from the preservation act: about $46,000 in the most recent year. But Mr. Bazzy said that's still helpful, given the state's 100 per cent matching grant and the town's small population.

Also, he said Vineyarders already are funding the program through a state fee assessed on property transfers. They might as well keep that money on the Island, he said.

Asked whether he'd recommend to voters in the four Vineyard towns that they adopt the legislation, Mr. Bazzy said, "Don't hesitate. It's effective and flexible - surprisingly flexible."