Artificial Preservation

Towns find ways to pay for turf fields

A state law passed in 2012 bars the use of Community Preservation Act funds to purchase artificial turf for athletic fields, but municipalities are finding a way around the prohibition.

The communities are using other funds to purchase the artificial turf itself and tapping their Community Preservation Act money for all the other work associated with the project.

Town Meeting in Tewksbury, for example, voted Wednesday night in favor of spending about $900,000 on an artificial turf field at Tewksbury Memorial High School, with $600,000 coming from Community Preservation Act funds. Town Meeting in Chelmsford last week approved about $3 million for turf fields and a track at the high school and middle school, with $1.2 million coming from Community Preservation Act funds.

Norwell is moving in the same direction with a proposed $3 million turf project. CPA funds would be used for everything but the artificial turf itself, which will be purchased with privately raised funds.

Paul Cohen, town manager in Chelmsford, said his community’s project is in full compliance with the law. He said the law is clear that CPA funds can be used for a turf field project as long as the money doesn’t go for the purchase or installation of the artificial turf. “That’s clearly how the Legislature deliberately defined it,” he said.

Cohen said the Legislature’s intent can be seen with the passage of another amendment to the CPA law last year. That amendment allowed communities that had already tapped CPA funds for artificial turf projects to proceed as long as the project was launched before July 1, 2012.

Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and the former head of the Community Preservation Act committee in Holliston, said communities such as Tewksbury, Chelmsford, and Norwell may be complying with the letter of the law, but not the spirit. “I think it’s a sort of an end-around,” he said. “It’s inconsistent with the whole spirit of the law.”

Approved in 2000, the Community Preservation Act provides matching state funds to municipalities that vote to add a surcharge to their property taxes, with the combined state and local revenue targeted at historic preservation initiatives, affordable housing, open space, and recreational projects.  More than 150 Massachusetts cities and towns have adopted the Community Preservation Act and more than $1 billion has been raised so far.

The act has done a lot of good in preserving historic structures, fighting urban sprawl, and providing affordable housing, but cash-strapped municipalities over the last 10 years have begun using their CPA money for more mundane needs. The law allowed the use of CPA funds for the creation or preservation of recreation space, but communities began interpreting that provision creatively. Sudbury defined sidewalks paid for with CPA funds as new recreational space. Many other communities said they were creating new recreation space by laying artificial turf over a grass field because the artificial turf field could be used more often.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Opponents challenged some of these interpretations in court, saying it was fine to use CPA money to create new recreational space or rehab existing space, but not for ongoing maintenance and not to replace grass with artificial turf. The courts sided with the opponents, so the municipalities went back to the Legislature, which in 2012 modified the law to allow the use of CPA funds for any project that makes “the land or the related facilities more functional for the intended recreational use.” The only restriction was that CPA funds could not be used for the acquisition of artificial turf.

A spokeswoman for the state Revenue Department, which tracks and dispenses CPA funds and offers guidance to municipalities on how to spend it, said the agency plans to remind cities and towns in an upcoming publication about the law’s terms. The spokeswoman, Ann Dufresne, declined to comment on the legality of artificial turf projects in Tewksbury and Chelmsford. “I can only direct you to what the law says,” she said.