Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Primer Regarding Brownfields

Word of warning - this is not my typical column, but it does fall into the realm of history since so many historical properties are also classified as brownfields because of their past use.

A brownfield isn't what you might think at first. They don't necessarily refer to fields, and they aren't necessarily brown, but brownfields do concern real estate.

The first instance of the term "brownfield" being used in any way was during a U.S. congressional hearing in June, 1992. That year also saw the first detailed policy analysis regarding brownfields by the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission for the Cleveland Ohio area. Cuyahoga's Sunar Houseman project was the first brownfield pilot project in 1992. The Sunar Houseman focused on redeveloping an industrial plant that had been in business since 1913. Once the project was completed the site became home to several businesses, created 81 new jobs and generated more than one million in annual revenue.

One of the largest brownfield sites in the United States that has been successfully redeveloped is Atlantic Station in Atlanta. The site originally saw light industry when the Atlanta Hoop Co. produced cotton bale ties and barrel hoops as early as 1901 and then more heavy industrial use and contamination by Atlantic Steel. The EPA awarded the Atlantic Station project their Phoenix Award as the Best National Brownfield Redevelopment in 2004.

The Environmental Protection Agency defines a brownfield site as "real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence of hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant." Today, the National Brownfield Association estimates between 400,000 and 1 million properties across the United States might qualify as a brownfield site. They estimate up to $2 trillion in real estate is undervalued because of contamination.

Typical contaminants include hydrocarbon spillages, solvents, pesticides, heavy metals such as lead based paints and asbestos. Brownfields also include properties that are underutilized for various socioeconomic reasons such as abandonment, obsolescence, tax delinquency and/or blight.

In 2002, Congress passed a bill to put an end to excessive regulations and litigations many entrepreneurs incur when revitalizing dilapidated fields called the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act.

The act provides for funds to assess and clean up brownfields. Financial incentives and regulatory requirements are included in other related laws and regulations.

Per the EPA, the Brownfield Program has increased residential property values by 2 percent to 3 percent when nearby brownfields are addressed, leveraged 72,434 jobs nationwide, and promotes area-wide planning.

Think about sites that have been abandoned or underused industrial and commercial facilities that might be available for reuse. Think about old textile mills, industrial plants, gas stations, drycleaners, places that look like illegal dumping grounds, junkyards and other abandoned commercial or industrial properties. The key to remember is sites do not have to be identified. They only have to have the potential of meeting the brownfield descriptors to be included.

So, do you think we might have a few brownfield sites in Douglasville?

Well, of course we do!

I wasn't surprised at all when I received a notice from the city regarding a community meeting to discuss their brownfield program last week.

The notice I received from the city advised, "Douglasville has many brownfields that offer an opportunity for redevelopment. The city is working on a strategy to redevelop these properties. The first step in that strategy is to apply for grant funding from the EPA to assess these properties and determine if contamination is indeed present. The grant application is being prepared and will be submitted to the EPA for consideration in November, 2011."

The EPA will announce which communities will receive the grant money during the Spring or
Summer of 2012.

The meeting attended was led by Joe Morici, a consultant with CTC Public Benefit Corporation. The City of Douglasville is using CTC to assist them with the grant application process. CTC specializes in EPA brownfield grants and has handled 50 such grants since the program began in the mid 1990s. You can view their online brochure here.

The application is for up to $200,000 regarding hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants and up to $200,000 regarding petroleum contaminants. The process is very competitive, and I've been told community involvement is the main component the EPA looks for when reviewing applications.

Initially the City is looking at the Lois Cotton Mill site and the County Jail that will be vacated soon as locations to include with the application. Other properties can be included as well, and suggestions from citizens would be most appreciated.

As many of you know the cotton mill site is most certainly on my radar as a missed and ignored historic site for our city. In my view it is the most historically significant location in the City of Douglasville. As I stated in August in my column titled Demolition by Neglect, "It's a shame that a unique and proud cotton mill with such a rich history ended up as a sad and lonely piece of Douglasville's history." I also gave a complete historical background regarding the mill and it's unique Charles Praray design here

The mill site was sold on the courthouse steps in September. The City of Douglasville now retains control of the property, and I strongly agree that including the mill property on the EPA grant application is the best course of action to move forward.

While contamination and deterioration have made the structure of the mill impossible to save it is still my fervent hope that the unique and historic Praray wall -  or just a section of it - that is still standing can be saved in some way and not merely ground up to serve as filler for the road bed for the Highway 92 realignment project as some officials have suggested.

Several dozen of you recommended my original column regarding the tragedy of the mill site on Facebook, some of you commented here at Patch, and I know the column inspired many of you to email me and others regarding the situation. Please get the word out regarding the brownfield application. The application process isn't just about the mill property, but is about identifying other sites within the City of Douglasville that might fit the descriptors I  provided above.

So, do you want to help shape Douglasville's redevelopment? Do you want to have input in transforming abandoned or underutilized property into new uses that benefit the community?

There are several things you can do to help. You can attend future community meetings, voice your concerns, ask questions, spread the news, and participate in the redevelopment plan once it's in place.

For more information please contact Marcia Hampton, community and downtown services director for the City of Douglasville, at 678-715-6091.

This post first appeared at Douglasville Patch October 17, 2011.

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