Battle lines drawn in Billerica over Community Preservation Act

Battle lines drawn in Billerica over Community Preservation Act

By: Rick Sobey

BILLERICA -- With Election Day only a week away, opponents are mobilizing on Question 5, which asks residents to adopt the Community Preservation Act.

Last week, two Finance Committee members who lead the Republican Town Committee formed the Question 5 Ballot Committee "to defeat Question 5, the Conservation Preservation Act."

As a result, some "No on 5" signs have popped up around Billerica. Tony Ventresca, chair of the Republican Town Committee, and Blake Robertson, vice chair, are leading the movement.

"Do you want local control over your town or not," Ventresca wrote on the Billerica Republican Town Committee Facebook page on Sunday. "Question 5 seeks to adopt the Conservation Preservation Act. It is not local control."

Residents on Nov. 8 will vote on the CPA question. The 1 percent surcharge would result in about a $33 increase on the average tax bill for homeowners; there are exemptions for residents who qualify for low-income housing or low/moderate income senior housing.

With the surcharge, Billerica would have a dedicated fund for open-space protection, community housing, outdoor recreation and historic preservation.

The account will also receive annual distributions from a state trust fund created by the act. CPA-certified projects have better access to federal and state grants with the amount distributed from the CPA Trust Fund to CPA communities at $550 million since 2000.

Marlies Henderson, the leader of the Vote Yes on #5 campaign, said that Ventresca is spreading misinformation about the ballot question.

"The surcharge would bring in more money than goes out," she said.

Henderson added that she's not surprised with Ventresca and Robertson forming this committee.

"They have been fiercely opposed to this on the Finance Committee," she said.

"It's been smooth sailing for us for awhile, but now we're hitting a political storm," Henderson added. "A little desperate by them at the last second."

Henderson also pointed out that the committee description is wrong; it should read "Community" instead of "Conservation."

Many area communities have adopted the CPA, including Chelmsford, Tewksbury, Dracut, Westford, Littleton, Tyngsboro and Bedford.

Chelmsford has a 1.5 percent surcharge for the CPA. As a result, the town has been able to acquire open space for conservation purposes, restored historic town buildings, made recreational improvements and spent significant money on affordable housing.

Dracut has a 2 percent surcharge for the CPA. There were not a lot of CPA projects at first, but now there's more interest in preserving farmland with CPA funds. One problem in Dracut, however, is that other areas in town need funding, such as the police and schools.

The new high-school project in Billerica, adding about $200 a year in taxes for the average homeowner, will be a factor with some voters. As Selectman John Piscatelli recently wrote on Facebook, "A difficult decision (with CPA), especially coming on the heels of the HS debt exclusion."

Henderson stressed that while every homeowner has to pay the additional $200 a year for the high school, there are exemptions for residents who qualify.

"Everybody has to pay for the high school, but CPA is about affordability," she said.

There's going to be a small, vocal group that opposes the ballot question no matter what, Henderson said.

"They don't want to pay more taxes, but the CPA is a good example of money being spent more wisely at the local level," she said.

The Yes on #5 campaign is inviting residents to information sessions about the ballot question; sessions are being held at the Billerica Public Library on Wednesday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at noon, in addition to the Council on Aging on Thursday at 11 a.m.