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Rural Aid Goes to Urban Areas

But even members of Congress have pointed out that the rules have become unwieldy. The "mixed definitions" of what is considered rural continue to challenge the Rural Development program, Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) said at a March 2006 hearing. "I believe we should work to find a consistent definition of the term 'rural' that would apply to all of the programs across all agencies," he said.

Boons for Provincetown

Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, qualified for Rural Development aid because it has a year-round population of about 4,000, below the threshold of 20,000 for community loans and grants. The USDA does not take into account that the summer population is at least 10 times as large. Nor does it consider that Provincetown has some of the most expensive real estate in the United States and relatively modest taxes.

Property values are more than six times what they were 20 years ago, and the tax base tops $2 billion. More than two-thirds of the houses in Provincetown are investment properties or second homes.

But in the eyes of the Agriculture Department, it is still considered to be rural.

"Our regulation says a city or town of less than 20,000. That's it," said Daniel Beaudette, director of community programs for Rural Development in Massachusetts.

Many of the historic houses in Provincetown are being carved up into condominiums, with a tiny one-bedroom unit selling for upwards of $600,000, according to the town's tax assessor, Paul M. Gavin. "We're kind of like a little Manhattan here," he said.

In 2003, the town received its $1.95 million government loan from Rural Development to help rebuild MacMillan Pier. In an e-mail, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts program explained that the pier was "considered an essential facility as it is the hub of the local fishing industry and the ferry to Boston."

But the local fishery is in decline. "The business of the harbor is now largely related to tourism," the town's Web site says. The ferry costs about $50 each way.

A short walk from the pier up Commercial Street, the nonprofit Provincetown Art Association and Museum has received four Rural Development loans and grants since 2004, using the money to increase its space, add climate-controlled facilities and renovate the sea captain's house. One loan, for $775,000, was awarded to cover cost overruns, records show.

Museum Executive Director Christine McCarthy said museum staffers stumbled upon the Rural Development program while looking for grants. "I had no idea they funded cultural projects," she said. USDA officials took a strong interest in the museum. "We're geographically challenged here," McCarthy said.

Rural by Some Measure

In New Jersey, the most densely populated state, Rural Development has awarded $250 million for projects in the past five years, including at least $75 million to beach and coastal towns, a Post analysis found. Last year, the agency spent $8.6 million on rental assistance there -- more than it spent on such aid in Nebraska, Kansas, Montana or North Dakota.

The city of Wildwood, on the Atlantic north of historic Cape May, experiences population swings similar to those of other beach towns. In the winter, the population is less than 6,000 and includes many poor seasonal workers. But in the summer, the boardwalk and spacious beaches fill up and the population nears 250,000, transforming Wildwood into one of the largest cities in the state. Best known for its low-slung motels and "Doo-Wop" style of architecture, the city is undergoing a revitalization, with property values tripling to about $2 billion.

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