By Kara Campbell, 2015-2016 Kuehn Fellow, Community Preservation Coalition
The state of Massachusetts has long recognized the importance of preserving land, not only for its ecological benefits (such as the protection of critical wildlife habitat), but also for the ecosystem services open space provides (such as water storage and purification), and for its social and health benefits, such as outdoor recreation. According to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, there are 5 million acres of land in Massachusetts, with approximately 1 million of these acres protected as conservation or park land. This land has been protected over time by a patchwork of federal, state, and local organizations, some of which are public, and others of which are private entities. For example, agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service , and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation , as well as private non-profits such as The Trustees of Reservations , Mass Audubon, and The Trust for Public Land have all been involved in land preservation in Massachusetts over the years. Massachusetts also boasts one of the densest networks of local land trusts in the nation, all of which operate at the local level to shepherd land preservation deals to completion.
Since 2000, Massachusetts municipalities that have adopted the Community Preservation Act (CPA) have become active players in land preservation. Through 2014, there have been a total of 661 CPA-funded projects involving land acquisitions for open space or recreation, totaling 24,290 acres. Of the 150 communities that had completed at least one CPA project by the end of 2014, 126 (84%) have acquired or protected some land for open space, agriculture or recreation.
According to the state database of CPA projects (self reported by communities on the CP-3 form) the Town of Sturbridge has protected the most land in terms of number of acres, with 1,427 acres preserved. The Town of Plymouth is close behind, with 1,422 acres protected. The ten CPA communities with the highest acreage of land protected are listed in Table 1.
Table 1: Ten CPA Communities with Highest Total Acreage of Land Protected
As for the largest individual CPA projects by acreage, Sturbridge topped the list again (see Table 2, which shows the top ten CPA-funded open space or recreation projects in terms of size.) In 2006, Sturbridge acquired 839 acres of open space abutting Old Sturbridge Village , in order to protect this unique history museum from the impacts of nearby development and provide much needed funding to the organization. The largest outdoor museum in the Northeast, Old Sturbridge Village depicts the rural and historic character of a New England town in the 1830s, and is a popular tourist destination. It boasts more than 40 original historic buildings, including homes, meetinghouses, a district school, country store, bank, working farm, three water-powered mills, and trade shops. It is the town’s marquee attraction, and an important driver of the local economy. Sturbridge’s CPA funds contributed about 63% of the total purchase price for the large parcel, with the remaining funds coming from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Table 2: CPA Open Space and Recreation Projects with Highest Acreage of Land Protected
Looking at total spending for CPA open space and recreation projects during the study period (see Table 3), the town of Sudbury topped the list of communities at $29.3 million dollars. Plymouth was second with $15.8 million in spending, and Westford came in third with $13.9 million in spending. All 10 of the top spenders were in the eastern, most populous part of the state, where land values are highest.
Table 3: Top Ten CPA Communities in terms of CPA dollars spent on Open Space/Recreation (includes total bond amount)
The top ten CPA-funded open space and/or recreation projects in terms of total dollar value are shown below in Table 4.
Table 4: Top Ten CPA Open Space and Recreation Projects by Dollar Value (includes total bond amounts)
A fairly low percentage of the total number of CPA-funded open space and recreation projects was bonded; a total of 94 of the 661 projects, or 14%, involved a bond. The average length of these bonds was 13 years. Of the 161 CPA communities, 52 of them, or 32%, bonded under CPA to finance an open space or recreation project. Click here for more information on bonding under CPA.
Land can be preserved in one of two ways: either the land itself is purchased (known as purchasing the land “in fee”) and then permanently protected with a conservation restriction , or the rights to develop the property can be purchased by placing a permanent restriction on the property, with the owner retaining title to the land. In this latter case, the permanent restriction typically limits the use of the property for its open space values (a conservation restriction, or CR) or for some other purpose, such as for agricultural (an agricultural preservation restriction or APR) or active recreational use. Click here to learn more about Conservation Restrictions on CPA acquired land.
The Coalition analyzed how many open space and recreation projects involved land acquisitions purchased in fee and how many involved purchasing just the development rights to the land. Of the 661 projects, 522, or 79%, involved acquisitions of land purchased in fee. The remaining 139, or 21%, were purchases of the development rights, in the form of a conservation restriction or an agricultural preservation restriction (APR) . The total acreage of land preserved using APRs was 2,891, or 12% of the total acreage protected. Nineteen of the 161 CPA communities (12%), including Acushnet, Amherst, Belchertown, Dartmouth, Deerfield, Dracut, Easthampton, Hadley, Monson, Northampton, Seekonk, Southampton, Southwick, Stow, Sudbury, Westfield, Westport, Whately, and Williamstown, have preserved open space for agricultural use by acquiring APRs on land.
Many of these communities are located in the Connecticut River Valley, where some of the richest soils in the world lie. Much of the valley had once been a huge glacial lake which receded, depositing calcium-rich rocks that eroded and left fertile soils for farming. According to The Trust for Public Land, the farms within the Connecticut River Valley make up some of the nation’s most productive farmland, and are the “breadbasket” of New England. Many of the communities in this region, as well as in other areas of the state with fertile agricultural land, recognize the importance of protecting their land and soil resources. Fortunately, many have adopted CPA to provide funding for land protection, allowing them to proactively preserve these important resources for future generations. Click here to view The Trust for Public Land’s report and learn more about the Connecticut River Valley.