Power to the People
How a Massachusetts Law Helps Towns Save Their Places
By Jared Keller | Online Only | Mar. 13, 2009
When both the natives and visitors think of the oceanside town of Chatham, Mass., at the elbow of Cape Cod, they may see the distinctive twin lighthouses that have warned ships away from its shoals for two centuries. The lighthouses are an identifying symbol of Chatham in local artwork and countless photographs. Fueled by lard oil and projecting a fixed white light, they labored for more than a century to keep sea travel off the New England coast safe; in 1875, keeper Josiah Hardy counted 16,000 vessels passing within their range.
But in 1969, one lighthouse's Fresnel lens and lantern were removed from the south tower of the lighthouse to make way for modern aerobeacons, and relocated to the town historical society's Atwood House in 1974, where prospects for restoration were uncertain. A crucial piece of the nation's maritime history might have been left to deteriorate if not for the Massachusetts Community Preservation Act (CPA), a unique law that gives communities the means to finance historic preservation.
Signed by Gov. Paul Cellucci in 2000, the act billed itself as "a new tool" to help communities preserve open space and historic sites, and create affordable housing and recreational facilities. It allows towns and cities to enact by a majority vote a surcharge on local property taxes of up to three percent. The money raised is then matched by state funds. To date, 140 of the Massachusetts' 351 cities and towns have passed the act.
"The CPA has raised millions of dollars for preservation in Massachusetts," says Stuart Saginor, executive director of the Community Preservation Coalition. "This money has made some pretty incredible projects possible."
According to Saginor, the state remains "totally silent" on the selection of projects, leaving the allocation of funds and execution of specific projects entirely in the hands of locals. Community Preservation Committees vet individual proposals that advance the intended purpose of the act. Across Massachusetts, it's communities that are putting CPA money to use.
"Funds have ranged from exterior and interior preservation work, architectural studies, the rehabilitation of historic documents and artifacts, and carrying out historic inventories, a process by which a [committee] determines the extent of a community's historic assets and the necessary funds needed to carry out a preservation project," Saginor says.
It's been a legacy-saving innovation for Chatham. Townspeople have "given a lot of money to historic preservation," says Florence Seldin, chair of the Chatham Community Preservation Coalition. Since 2003 the town has raised more than $3 million for preservation projects, ranging from the Fresnel lens to a one-room Main Street school house built in 1924. Without the matching state funds from CPA, notes Seldin, "some of these projects could not have been done without being supplemented by CPA funds, solely based on private funding."
Help for Another Cape
The Chatham Lights are not the only lighthouse project to receive CPA backing. More than $449,000 in CPA funds were spent by the town of Rockport, Mass., to help restore the two lighthouses, whistle house, and keeper's cottage on Thatcher's Island. Rockport is not a wealthy town, but Mary Francis, chair of the Rockport Community Preservation Committee, says, "we consider it money well spent, and it would not have been available if not for CPA historic funding, especially since the town's capital funds are stretched to the limit." Town residents voted this year to renew their three percent self-assessment for another five years with the understanding, reports Francis, that "even if the state cannot match it at 100 percent, we are still in the best position to receive the highest amount available from the state, and that is money we would never have otherwise to further the quality of life here in Rockport."
Cape Ann, the rocky peninsula north of Boston where Rockport is located, is proud of its differences with Cape Cod, but when it comes to preservation projects such as this, the two regions share a common interest.
"The townsfolk recognize the importance of the Thatcher's Island lights to the history of both the town and the fishing and shipping industry," says Francis. "We are very proud to have them fully functioning, especially now that we can all go out to the island for the day, or stay overnight in the keeper's cottage that has new rental units available. They are an important part of Rockport's cultural, historic, and pictorial landscape. Most cannot imagine Rockport without them."
CPA funding is not confined to lighthouses. A town hall in Ashland, a historic library in Lenox, the restoration of a historic fire engine in Georgetown, and a dairy and horse barn dating back to 1810 in Williamstown are among the hundreds of projects either partially or entirely matched by CPA funding.
The Coming Storm
This spring, because of the economic downturn, only four Massachusetts communities are scheduled to vote on the act, as opposed to the usual six to eight, according to Katherine Roth, associate director of the Community Preservation Coalition. In addition, some towns are considering reducing the amount of the surcharge or even revoking the act. Three towns will hold meetings to discuss those issues this spring.
"Because of the somewhat unique and popular nature of this program, it seems to have a certain resiliency to it that bodes well for it weathering this storm," Roth said in an e-mail. "The down economy also offers some bonuses to communities working with CPA, in the form of lower prices for land, materials, and labor. So those communities allocating funds for CPA projects can certainly get more for their money in this economy."
Local officials, citizens, and state legislators, and 81 state legislators have signed on as co-sponsors of legislation that would, among other things, stabilize the annual state match at 75 percent.
For more information about the act, visit http://www.communitypreservation.org/
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