Brownfields are those sites whose use, development or modification are complicated by the presence, or perceived presence, of contamination. Brownfields can include former industrial sites, gas stations, dry cleaners and even farms that have stored pesticides or fertilizers. These sites can contribute to neighborhood blight and, depending on contamination levels, to public health problems. However, some brownfields are development opportunities just waiting to transform a community.
In many instances, the contamination level of a site is unknown. Due to federal legislation from the 1980s, liability from site contamination is attached to all former and future owners. This led to warehousing of sites and a general reticence to investigate the site or cleanup known contamination. In the ensuing decades, federal and Pennsylvania laws were created to allow for liability severance if remediation actions meet or exceed approved standards. In addition, much of this legislation has provided funding for inventory, contamination assessment and remediation of brownfield sites.
Brownfields have financial risks associated with the unknown contamination or future discovered contamination. Additionally, remediation can be a very costly process. Only in the strongest real estate markets can those barriers be overcome by post-remediation property values. In blighted neighborhoods, or on parcels of community interest, it may be necessary to employ public resources to redevelop a brownfield site. As mentioned, federal and state grants and revolving loan dollars are available.
Municipalities can partner with developers by guaranteeing loans, providing assessment or remediation funds, creating Tax Incremental Financing districts for infrastructure improvements or providing tax abatements.
If the municipalities get involved, it is important that the project be a part of a larger comprehensive or revitalization plan to ensure that the end usage is consistent with the community vision and that the zoning and land development ordinances are followed. In many communities, specific sites are identified through the planning process and then private partners are sought. Either way, the planning process can provide a framework for prioritizing sites, identifying stakeholders and generating political support.
Brownfield redevelopment can be dependent on time, money and complex relationships between participants. Also, issues of legal liability can further compound matters. However, despite the complicated nature of brownfields redevelopment, real opportunity exists to transform some of the most underutilized properties in a community.
Promotes infill development and land recycling
Can catalyze revitalization in blighted or disinvested neighborhoods
Remediation of contaminants can benefit public health
Increased tax base by using unused lots
Can be costly and time consuming
May be at odds with community goals
Conduct a brownfields assessment to locate and identify sites
Refer to the PA Department of Environmental Protection's Land Recycling Program for remediation guidelines
Prepare a market analysis to identify profitable uses
Reuse: Creating Community-based Brownfield Redevelopment Strategies - American Planning Association
Brownfields & Land Revitalization - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency