Limited Taxation

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Barbara's Column
April 2001 #1

The Community Preservation Act Explained
by Barbara Anderson

In the beginning was the land. There were lots of trees. Then the people arrived and made communities, a few homes at a time.

At some point each community reached an ideal mix of buildings, trees, and open space.

I have no idea what that point was. For the reclusive, the ideal existed the day before a house was built within sight and sound of theirs. They worked in their own fields or commuted somehow to a relatively nearby business.

For the very sociable, or those without transportation, the ideal was a city with neighbors, jobs, and a park nearby.

In between, there were villages with a common, towns with vacant lots and big yards, or fishing communities with houses huddled together along the shore, enjoying the view.

And God said, this is good enough, and stopped creating people except for replacement of the ones who already existed.

Just kidding. For some reason maybe creation was on automatic the people kept coming. Eventually, in Massachusetts at least, we needed a Community Preservation Act to prevent more buildings and therefore preserve somebody's concept of a community.

We started on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, islands where people were already shoulder to shoulder and sliding into the sea or at least getting too many neighbors within sight and sound of their mansions. The concept spread to Cape Cod, which had a problem with its water table or something having to do with sandy soil. The idea was to tax newcomers and to use the money to buy open space to avoid overtaxing the infrastructure.

This seemed unfair to some mainlanders who someday hoped to overcrowd the Cape themselves, so the bill that finally passed made the existing residents pay higher taxes to buy the open space, if a majority of local voters allowed it.

Well, heaven forbid that some communities have a tax that other communities don't have, even if those communities have dirt soil and lots of water, or no open space left anyhow. So inevitably the new tax became available for everyone as a surcharge on property owners' property tax bill. If some communities don't have open space left to buy they can use the money for historic preservation or affordable housing. In fact, they have to use at least 10 percent of it for each of the three categories.

The affordable housing part is especially important because as open space is removed from the market, housing becomes more expensive. Thus the requirement that some of the money raised be used to build affordable housing, presumably on what was once open space. Are you following this so far?

Once upon a time there was lots of affordable housing, at least for most people, since most people seemed to afford to live somewhere. And then there were zoning laws that required new homes to have one or two acres of land around them, and rent control in some cities, and prohibitions against mobile homes or commercial buildings, and environmental restrictions regarding loosely-defined wetlands.

So the question is this: do we want open space, or do we want affordable housing? The government wants both. So it taxes us so it can preserve land, and taxes us so it can use land, and hopes we won't notice that our efforts are canceling themselves out.

It's important that we not notice this, since we have to vote to accept the Community Preservation Act and tax ourselves. Then as we vote to raise taxes, more local citizens who live in small affordable houses or own open space can't afford the taxes and sell their property to developers, who tear down the small houses and build large ones that are no longer affordable, and build affordable housing somewhere that was open space.

To make it all even more interesting, communities themselves take open space by eminent domain from people who want to preserve it, and build schools on it for the additional children who move into the larger houses and affordable housing.

The new schools attract even more people with kids to the community. The Proposition 2 overrides to pay for them drive even more senior citizens out of the community; then their small houses can be torn down and replaced with more bigger houses for people with kids.

In the beginning was the land, and in the end there is the Community Preservation Act.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem Evening News and the Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in other newspapers.

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