SHIRLEY — With eight articles on the warrant, Special Town Meeting drew a sizable crowd to the Ayer Shirley Regional Middle School auditorium Monday night. As 147 voters signed in, long lines at the check-in tables prompted Town Moderator Chip Guercio to delay proceedings for a couple minutes.
Article 2 was the likely reason for the strong turnout, judging from the exodus after it passed.
Article 2 proposed adopting the Community Preservation Act, adding a 1% surcharge to annual property tax bills for homeowners and businesses. With a simple majority needed to pass, the article easily met that benchmark on a raised-card vote and the moderator’s declaration that it passed.
In a presentation before the vote, CPA Implementation Committee Chairman Paul Przybyla summarized his group’s 20-page report to the Select Board that appointed them a year ago.
Charged with studying the CPA law and whether it might benefit Shirley, the four-member committee’s conclusion was that it was a win/win for the town. “We urge it’s adoption, Przybyla said.
Enacted by the state legislature in 2000, 55% of Massachusetts’ cities and towns have adopted the CPA, he said, including Ayer, Harvard and Groton.
There was some discussion, most of it favorable.
But one resident raised concerns. Citing current economic conditions and her own challenges as a senior on a fixed income, Kathy Bradley, of Peabody Road, said this was “not the time to add a tax.” Later in the meeting, she asked for a paper ballot vote on the issue. Absent a second, the motion failed.
Resident Barbara Yocum, of Lawton Road, a member of the Planning Board, asked why the committee had settled on a 1% CPA surcharge. “I understand you can do up to 3%,” she said.
Przybyla said that’s true, but it wasn’t needed now. Although a higher surcharge would build up the CPA fund quickly, there were not enough projects queued up to justify it, he said. Another consideration focused on the impact on taxpayers. “We wanted to keep it (annual add-on) under $50 …” he said.
Based on a formula noted in his presentation, Przybyla said the surcharge would add about $39 to the annual tax bill for an “average” single family home in town, minus an exemption that reduces that base valuation by $1,000, for calculation purposes.
There are other exemptions that could cut or even cancel the surcharge pay-in, as well, for low income residents and low to moderate income seniors, for example. Most likely, most people over 60 won’t pay a surcharge, he posited, based on state-set thresholds. They must apply for the exemption, however.
Przybyla explained that the CPA fund — the amount collected by the town from the surcharge — plus money kicked in by the state that comes from deed registration fees (32% now) can only be used for three purposes: Open space and outdoor recreation, affordable housing and historic preservation.
The law states how much of the total nest egg must be used for projects in those categories, he said, 10% each. The remaining 70% can be saved, building up the balance each year. That money can be used to buy land for open space or recreation, for example. It can also be applied toward local matching amounts required for some government grants. Or for affordable community housing, which in turn could help the town meet its quota under state law.
Under the provisions of that law, known as Chapter 40B, the state requires that each community in the Commonwealth meet a specific benchmark: 10% of existing units.
Communities that fall short, including Shirley, are open to so-called “hostile 40B” development, which allows developers who set aside 25% of the units they build to site their projects almost anywhere in town, regardless of zoning and to bypass other zoning bylaw requirements, such as density.
“What is the danger of not adopting CPA?” a resident asked, phrasing the question in that light.
Przybyla said that adopting CPA won’t in and of itself stave off 40B development. But it can help the town determine its own destiny by funding community projects in the three categories, including affordable housing initiatives.
It can also help fund projects the town budget would otherwise need to fully pay for, such as repairing historic town-owned buildings, town athletic fields and recreational facilities. Coupled with other expenses, such as public safety and schools, those added expenses could up property taxes.
“Keep in mind … we don’t want to be the kind of community” that residents’ children and their families can’t afford to live in, Przybyla said.
Residents spoke of their love for the town and urged others to vote for CPA, to help preserve it.
Beth Quinty said her father had told her, years ago, that Shirley was a “beautiful town” and would be a fine place to raise her kids. Which it was, she said, noting a college essay her daughter wrote, touting the sublime side of Shirley life. She added that she hopes her son, now in Alabama, can settle here.
Gaynor Bigelback gave a rousing endorsement of the town — and for CPA, body language and all.
“Isn’t Shirley a fantastic place to live?” she asked, swiveling from the mic to face the crowd. “We love this place … CPA is another tool to help us preserve our lovely community!”
Having passed muster with Town Meeting voters, the measure now goes to a town-wide ballot vote at the election in May.
Przybyla explained what would happen next. If the ballot question passes and CPA is adopted, a seven-member CPA Committee will be seated, with several town boards represented and two-at large members appointed by the Select Board. The committee will review proposed projects each year and make a recommendation to Town Meeting, which decides which projects CPA funds will be used for.
The other warrant articles passed on majority voice votes.
Article 1 asked to appropriate $6,850 to pay a prior year’s bill from the engineering firm Weston and Sampson, for work on a pump station sewer control panel on Hospital Road.
Article 3 asked to establish a Tax Title Collection Revolving Fund, beginning in Fiscal Year 2023, for expenses related to collecting back taxes, including foreclosures.
Article 4 asked to bring the current OPEB Fund up to meet government requirements. This is the fund that must be established, by law, to meet future obligations to retired town employees.
Article 5 asked to transfer PEG access receipts to the Shirley Public Access Corp. to cover operating expenses and equipment.
Town Administrator Mike McGovern said the money comes from Comcast, not taxpayers.
As part of its contract, Comcast, which provides the town with internet and cable TV service, sends a quarterly amount to the town, he said. The money is intended for SPACO, the nonprofit group that provides local programming on the town’s three public access TV stations and films and broadcasts town events, including Monday night’s meeting, which aired live.
Article 7 sought voters’ approval to transfer funds to cover the first fiscal year of a collective bargaining agreement with the Shirley firefighters’ union.
Article 8 asked to amend a previous town meeting vote, increasing an amount transferred from American Rescue Plan Act funds by $39,000, so the Fire Department can hire another firefighter.