By Sarah Marshall
This Monday, the Town Council will hold a public forum on the Community Preservation Act Committee’s (CPAC’s) grant recommendations for the next fiscal year. Later in the evening, the Council is scheduled to vote on most of the recommendations.
Almost all are likely to be approved, in my estimation, but two of CPAC’s recommendations have triggered concern among Councilors, specifically grants for repairs to the Alice Maud Hills House and the Conkey-Stevens House. At the heart of the concern is whether public money should be awarded to private property owners, either non-profits (such as the Woman’s Club, owners of the Hills House) or homeowners (Salem Place Condominium Association, owners of the Conkey-Stevens House). As chair of CPAC, I enthusiastically support both projects – indeed, all the project recommended to Council. (Note that this blog post is my own opinion, not approved by CPAC.)
Both properties are listed in the National Historic Register and are within local historic districts. The Alice Maud Hills house, at 35 Triangle St. but facing Main Street, is a neighbor (more or less) to the Emily Dickinson Homestead and the Evergreens. The Conkey-Stevens House, at 664 Main St., is a one-of-a-kind Second Empire structure in East Amherst. Both buildings require exterior work that exceeds the financial capacities of their owners.
It is helpful to understand the Community Preservation program before saying more about these two particular projects – but if you are already familiar with the CPA, you can jump ahead.
Where do the CPAC funds come from? Amherst citizens repeatedly voted to tax themselves – three times since 2001 – in order to participate in the program enabled by the state’s Community Preservation Act. Property owners pay a surcharge, or tax on the property tax, of 3% (the first $100,000 of assessed value is exempt). That is, for every $100 assessed in property taxes, an extra $3 goes into our Community Preservation Fund. The Commonwealth contributes additional dollars yearly to the participating cities and towns; the precise amount varies, year to year, but the state matched 39% of the Town’s FY2021 collection to the fund for FY2022.
Why did voters agree to raise their own taxes? Because voters support the goals of the program, which are to fund projects addressing affordable housing, historic preservation, acquisition of open space, and development and improvement of recreational amenities.
Over the past 20 years, approximately $18 million in CPA money has been invested in numerous Amherst projects. Examples include:
- In the Community (i.e., affordable) Housing category, the purchase of land on Belchertown Road, funding for the Valley CDC project at 123 Northampton Rd. (“East Gables”), conversion of market-rate rental units at Rolling Green Apartments to affordable units, and grants to Amherst Community Connections’ transitional housing initiatives;
- In the Open Space category, funds for the redesign of the northern part of the Town Common, contributions to the purchase (completed just last week) of the Hickory Ridge Golf Course, purchase of land (now under conservation) such as the Szala and Keets-Haskins properties, and funds for improvements to trail networks;
- In the Historic Preservation category, preservation efforts at Town Hall, funding for the Special Projects facility in the Jones Library expansion and renovation project, funds for building envelope repairs and/or foundation repairs at the Munson and North Amherst libraries, restoration of the Tiffany window at the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Amherst, restoration of the Civil War tablets, and exterior repairs to the Goodwin Memorial AME Zion church;
- And in the Recreation category, funds for the playgrounds (sometimes matched with grant funding) at Kendrick Park, the playground and spray park at Groff Park, and repairs to basketball courts and pools at Town recreation areas.
Who decides what grants to award? CPAC is responsible for soliciting, reviewing, and recommending grant applications. In the past, CPAC’s annual report was submitted to Town Meeting, but now it goes to Town Council for discussion, public comment, and a vote. Those bodies have sole power to authorize town spending. The enabling statute allows Town Council to reject a recommendation or reduce the size of a grant, but Council may not increase a grant or award funds to projects not recommended by CPAC.
Who serves on CPAC? The law directs several boards and commissions to delegate representatives to CPAC. Thus, CPAC members come from the Amherst Housing Authority, the Historical Commission, the Conservation Commission, the Recreation Commission, and the Planning Board. The Town Manager also recruits candidates for three at-large seats.
But back to the Hills House and Conkey-Stevens House. Both applications were strongly supported by the Amherst Historical Commission. CPAC and the commission spoke publicly about the clear eligibility of privately owned properties for CPA money, emphasizing that the “public benefit” to the taxpayer, as far as the law is concerned, need only be the view of the exterior from the street or sidewalk. The commission urged Councilors to consider Amherst’s many historic structures as an outdoor museum through which citizens roam. They noted that private property owners are usually not eligible for grants to preserve their historic properties, and that the Community Preservation Act deliberately includes them.
No precedent would be set by approving an award to the Alice Maud Hills House. CPA grants have been made to private not-for-profit entities in Amherst numerous times. Churches, the Jewish Community of Amherst, the farmhouse owned by the North Amherst Community Farm – even the Hills House’s Carriage House – have received grants.
What may be novel in Amherst is granting taxpayer dollars to a private homeowner. The Council is concerned about a possible flood of applications, and wonders whether private owners should be held completely responsible for maintenance of their historic structures. On behalf of CPAC, I noted that all program applicants compete for funding, that many projects are not approved, and that private owners are welcome in the program. Personally, I believe that since these private owners are providing a benefit to the rest of us, and ownership of historic properties is both inherently expensive and subject to many constraints, the public should be willing to help pick up the tab occasionally.
One concern raised by Councilors is how to secure the taxpayers’ contribution to the property, should the property be sold or demolished, for example. This a reasonable concern and one that should be readily resolved by language in the agreements between the Town and applicants. As mentioned above, grants that benefit properties not owned by the Town have been made on numerous occasions already.
Readers may want to know about the other grants CPAC recommends for FY23. We recommend new grants totaling approximately $1.833 million, as well as debt payments of about $490,000 for projects voted in earlier years, and $25,000 for administrative expenses. We also recommend reserving about $533,000 for future CPA uses.
In brief, CPAC is recommending that funds be granted to:
- the Town to assist in the purchase or rehabilitation of a property to be used for transitional housing,
- the Town to fund a part-time housing projects coordinator,
- the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust to enable it to fund projects as they arise – perhaps, soon, at the East Street School site and the Belchertown Road property acquired a year ago – and for a part-time consultant,
- the Town to conduct repairs at one of its affordable housing sites, the John C. Nutting building,
- the Amherst Historical Society so that it can conduct an engineering and structural assessment of the Museum,
- the Town for continued repairs to the West Cemetery,
- the District One Neighborhood Association, with the assistance of the Conservation Department, to begin work on a history trail along part of the Mill River,
- Crocker Farm School for design work on upgrades to or replacement of a playground,
- the Town to improve the irrigation system at the Plum Brook playing fields,
- the Town for some trail work at the Hickory Ridge property,
- the Town for general repairs and improvements to its trail network,
- and to Amherst Pickleball Supporters, with the assistance of the Recreation Department, to build two or more pickleball courts.
I look forward to seeing these projects come to fruition!
Public Forum: Monday, March 21, 6:30-7:00 p.m. Zoom link: https://amherstma.zoom.us/j/81560508561