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Preserving a Way of Life

Originally published in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette

January 2, 2008
Martin Luttrell (Reporter, Worcester Telegram & Gazette)

Cheri Ezell-Vandersluis leaned forward and let a couple of dozen apples tumble onto a table. Working quickly and efficiently, she cored the apples with a paring knife and cut them into chunks. Her hands raw and pink in the cold of the barn, she picked up the two finished trays of cut fruit and set them on the matted straw in a stall occupied by two piglets recently saved from a slaughterhouse.

As the pigs flipped the trays over and sorted through the offerings, Ms. Vandersluis spoke with affection of the menagerie of pigs, poultry, llamas, sheep, goats and other animals in the barn — many have been rescued from abusive owners — and how they will be taken care of for the rest of their days.

She and her husband, Jim Vandersluis, live on 121 acres on North Avenue in Mendon that had been farmed by his family for generations. Now, it operates under the name Maple Farm Animal Sanctuary, home to sick, abused and abandoned animals. Concerned that the former farmland will be developed for housing when she and her husband can no longer operate the sanctuary, Ms. Ezell-Vandersluis will bring a proposal before next spring’s annual town meeting for the property to be preserved and operated as a sanctuary and education center. She is working with town officials and the Metacomet Land Trust on an application for the town to use the Community Preservation Act to purchase the property and continue the sanctuary, as well as open the land and trails to the public under a conservation restriction.

Though details are not yet worked out, she estimated that it would take a minimum of $1.9 million for her plan to work.

“A bioassessment showed that this land has been well taken care of. It has had no pesticides or herbicides,” Ms. Ezell-Vandersluis said. “The flora and fauna are diverse. We want desperately to preserve it. We would need a foundation to help us.

“We want other people to enjoy wildlife. They can learn from the property.”

Passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Paul Cellucci in 2000, the Community Preservation Act has generated more than $360 million for open space preservation, affordable housing and historic preservation. Communities that adopt the legislation can fund projects by levying a surtax on residential property assessments. Local funds are matched by state funds for approved projects.

Some 127 communities have adopted the CPA, including 10 in Worcester County. Sturbridge was one of the earliest communities to adopt the provision, voting in 2001 to levy the maximum 3 percent surcharge on residential property valuation, exempting the first $100,000 of valuation. It has contributed more than $327,000 to the state Community Preservation Act trust fund since then and has funded several projects, including the purchase of 1,100 acres of open space, including 850 acres from Old Sturbridge Village, said Penny J. Dumas, who chairs the town’s Community Preservation Committee.

“We’ve digitized the early town records that have been in a safe,” she said. “All the early records, now there are copies at the town library and high school. We’ve done restoration on gravestones at the town’s North Cemetery and the old burial ground.”

Sturbridge most recently purchased two adjoining parcels and is negotiating with Habitat for Humanity to build two affordable houses there, she said.

As in other CPA communities, those applying for CPA funding in Sturbridge must submit an application to the town’s Community Preservation Committee, which makes sure it meets the criteria and is worthwhile for the community. Once an application is accepted, the committee puts it before a town meeting for a vote.

Sturbridge’s committee is made up of representatives of the town’s Housing Partnership, Recreation Committee, Open Space Committee, Planning Board, Conservation Commission, Historic Commission and three at-large members.

“We have very healthy debate,” Ms. Dumas said. “We’re a good, diverse group, and the members bring the thoughts from their committees to the table.”

Mendon, which purchased two large tracts of open space prior to the CPA, has a lot of open space and historic areas that residents want to preserve, said Anne S. Mazar, chairwoman of the town’s Community Preservation Committee. Passage of the legislation was made easier by exempting the first $100,000 of property valuation before adding the surcharge, an exemption commonly used by towns that have signed on to the measure, she said.

“Also, there was the aspect of knowing that if a subdivision goes in, there’s an average of two kids per house, and taxes don’t cover the cost of the services that will be needed,” she said.

Since adopting the CPA, Mendon has purchased 24 acres of open land at the northerly end of town on Route 16, created an all-purpose athletic field next to the town’s Memorial Park and made repairs to the Records Room building, where early town paper records have been stored, she said.

A project to repair the Town Hall roof is being considered, and a Route 16 parcel is being considered for affordable housing through the CPA, she said.

The combined local and state funding can also be used as the town’s match for other grants and funding, she said. In the last four years the town has received $700,000 in direct match money from the state using the CPA, she added.

“It’s important to have that (money) in our account,” she said. “You never know when land is going to be sold, or a historic building is going to be knocked down. It really gives you leverage to participate in other state (funding) programs.”

If the Vandersluis sanctuary project is approved, it won’t be the first time the Community Preservation Act has been used for such a purpose. The city of Newton used the CPA to purchase that community’s last working farm when the owner died, renovating the farmhouse into an affordable housing unit for the person now working the farm. The city-owned farm has volunteers and educational programs for teens, and produce from the farm goes to local markets and to low-income residents at reduced prices, said Katherine Roth, associate director of the Community Preservation Coalition, which oversees projects under the legislation.

The numbers of projects around the state are spread nearly evenly among open space, historic preservation, affordable housing and recreation, although buying open space is usually far more expensive than housing or historic preservation projects, she pointed out.

“One feature of the program that appeals to people is that it has inherent checks and balances,” she said. “Projects go through public hearings, and go before town meeting or city council. It will have to have community backing. Voters have final veto power.”

But while the CPA has provided communities with a mechanism to fund preservation and affordable housing, it has received some criticism. A July report by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, part of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said the legislation has transferred tens of millions of dollars from the state’s poorest communities to its wealthiest.

“The Massachusetts Community Preservation Act: Who Benefits, Who Pays?” report also found that a lack of standardized reporting requirements makes it difficult to precisely determine how communities spend CPA funds, and thus how effective and efficient the program has been.

Robert A. Durand, who drafted the legislation when he was a member of the state Legislature in the 1980s and 1990s, saw it passed when he was appointed Secretary of Environmental Affairs by Mr. Cellucci. He said the preservation act has been “fabulously successful,” and the reporting problems the Rappaport report cited are being fixed.

Mr. Durand is out of state government, and is president of Durand & Anastas Environmental Strategies Inc., a consultant to the coalition.

“I think it was one of best things in my time in the Legislature,” he said. “It has paid off well.”

He said CPA projects have protected more than 8,000 acres, and produced or aided the creation of more than 1,000 affordable housing units. Additionally, it has helped preserve more than 800 historic properties and documents and created more than 50 recreational facilities, he said.

But with the housing slump hitting state tax revenues via lower property values, matching state funds will probably drop to 75 percent next October, then to 37 percent the following year unless the Legislature passes a bill now in the Senate.

“I would argue that CPA is still a great thing for communities, even without a full state match,” said Mr. Durand. “It provides communities with tools to protect their quality of life. It allows them to chart their own destiny.”

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