Brownfields continues to be one of the most innovative and meaningful topics in development and environmental circles, breaking through old barriers and fears to reuse older tainted properties and revitalize communities. Winston-Salem is at the forefront in making brownfields work, and recently received more good news in the form of a $500,000 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Brownfields grant to help finance the cleanup of environmentally impacted properties.

Brownfields are important to the EPA and other government agencies which provide assistance to communities that are progressive in dealing with environmental issues. The new grant follows a 1998 $200,000 EPA grant to identify and assess brownfields along the Liberty Street Corridor and a $1,000,000 Brownfields Economic Development Initiative (BEDI) grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the development of an airport business park within the Liberty Street Corridor. The latest grant will be used to create a Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund to make short-term loans to property owners and developers for cleanup costs.

A BROWNFIELDS PROPERTY is generally defined as abandoned, idled or underused property where expansion or redevelopment is hindered by actual or potential environmental contamination (or, more often, the legal implications of contamination). Most cities and towns, no matter what size, have brownfields. If they can be made productive, they create jobs and tax revenues by attracting economic activity back into areas where the infrastructure of roads, utilities and other public services is already established.

The advent of brownfields legislation, policies and programs has created or enhanced market demand for many impacted properties. Winston-Salem has made brownfields an integral part of its efforts for urban revitalization and its commitment to improve older areas.

The geographic focus of the new loan program includes major distressed business corridors radiating from the center city and the neighborhoods they serve. It will build on existing programs and initiatives such as the Airport Business Park, the East Winston Development and Liberty Street Corridor Plans, the New Century Plan for downtown, and the Goler/Depot Community Development Corporation's initiatives for the redevelopment of the Patterson Avenue (formerly Depot Street) area which was once the business, cultural and social hub of the African-American community in Winston-Salem.

Both downtown Winston-Salem and parts of the Liberty Street Corridor are in the early stages of a resurgence which Mayor Cavanagh terms a "renaissance" or rebirth. These areas, and others, have received interest from developers, and developers and residents have in turn expressed interest in brownfields programs as an important part of the redevelopment process.

Winston-Salem's brownfields effort has been strongly supported by the community, perhaps most notably by its Chamber of Commerce, which spearheaded the first pilot grant and has taken a leading role in trying to strengthen North Carolina's existing brownfields legislation. The chamber has made brownfields a critical part of its 2000 Public Policy Agenda, and supports improving current state legislation to give sellers resources to expedite brownfields redevelopment, and consideration of incentives which enable innocent parties to receive up to 75 percent of the environmental costs incurred for investigating and remediating brownfields properties.

The North Carolina Metro Alliance, made up of chambers of commerce representing areas of 100,000 people or more, has made enhancement of state brownfields legislation part of their 2000 legislative agenda, seeking to streamline the process and redirect resources to accelerate and encourage redevelopment of blighted areas.

Brownfields redevelopment is not completely dependent on new legislation and policies but of course they can help significantly. North Carolina's Brownfields Property Reuse Act is not as strong as brownfields legislation in other states, but is a good start toward assisting prospective developers of suspect properties. It provides prospective developers the opportunity to negotiate reduced cleanup levels and receive liability protection from government prosecution for the identified contamination. This protection extends to future owners, lessees, developers and remediation contractors, lenders, and successors.

Reduced cleanup levels – while still ensuring safety – can significantly change the economics of remediation, where most of the cost can be incurred in removing the smallest remnant of contamination, whether it is harmful or not.

OFTEN, BUSINESSES and communities who have a need are somewhat ahead of states in promoting change. As reflected in the chambers' legislative agenda, the actual process of getting state brownfields agreements has been slow, at least in part because of lack of staffing and funding.

Time is of the essence for most development projects, and there have been important recent efforts to improve the pace and add staff. Other changes would further help cities and brownfields developers.

State Senator Fountain Odom has proposed to create a new state tax incentive for the redevelopment of brownfields properties which would provide additional assistance to development. Further loosening the liability chains would boost redevelopment opportunities. Potential environmental liabilities now extend not merely to those who directly caused the contamination, perhaps generations ago, but to many others who may come under the definition of "responsible party." This, of course, is one reason so many properties are in fact abandoned, idled, or underutilized.

Winston-Salem is not alone in confronting brownfields and creating strategies to take advantage of new legislation, incentives and policies encouraging redevelopment. The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that about 450,000 brownfields sites exist in every state throughout the nation. In the Triad area High Point and Burlington have received EPA pilot grants and are working creatively to find solutions. Each of these cities will provide a model that other communities can apply.

There are many brownfields and potential redevelopment projects, representing tremendous unrealized wealth and tax revenue. Successful projects will show the risk averse – of which there are many – that such projects are not only viable and worth the risk but good investments.

Guest columnists Stephen R. Berlin and Donald M. Nielsen are environmental and land use attorneys with Kilpatrick Stockton LLP in Winston-Salem. Kilpatrick Stockton assisted the City of Winston-Salem in obtaining both EPA brownfields redevelopment grants. Both Mr. Berlin and Mr. Nielsen are working on brownfields projects in North Carolina and can be reached at 336-607-7300 or at sberlin@kilstock.com and dnielsen@kilstock.com.


This article first appeared in the June 9, 2000, issue of Triad Business News.

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