Community Preservation Act reined in
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that the Community Preservation Act is not a state-supported slush fund that municipalities can tap to spruce up their existing parks and ballfields.
The CPA, as CommonWealth magazine reported in its summer issue, was approved in 2000 to give municipalities more tools to fight urban sprawl and to make housing more affordable. Any community adding a surcharge to its property tax bills would qualify for state matching funds for community preservation initiatives.
But along the way, many cities and towns adopted the CPA and used the money for questionable recreation projects that did nothing to fight urban sprawl or make housing more affordable. The law does allow cities and towns to use CPA money to create new recreational space, but towns like Wayland and Acton concluded that replacing a grass football field with a synthetic turf field qualified as the creation of new recreational space. Falmouth felt the installation of bike racks and benches qualified. Sudbury said sidewalks in residential areas represented new recreational facilities serving joggers, pedestrians, bikers, skateboarders, and rollerskaters.
In its decision, the SJC dismissed the interpretation of the law adopted by many municipalities across the state. The court said CPA funds should be used "for the creation of land for recreational use, not the creation of new recreational uses on existing land already devoted to that purpose. The word ‘create’ means ‘to bring into being’ or ‘to cause to exist.’ Land for recreational use is not being created when a municipality chooses simply to enhance or redevelop that which already exists as such."The decision is unlikely to have much impact beyond Newton. Other communities that have broken the law by using CPA funds on existing recreational facilities are probably immune from prosecution because the projects have already been funded and completed. Most communities that were considering using CPA funds to spruce up existing parks and ballfields held off while the Newton case was making its way through the courts.
The issue is not going away. Communities are pushing legislation on Beacon Hill that would amend the Community Preservation Act to allow the use of CPA funds for existing recreational facilities. That bill was amended last year to bar the use of CPA funds for synthetic turf fields because they are expensive, controversial, and, as Sen. Brian Joyce pointed out, "not natural."