Brownfields advocates pushing for greater development incentives
By Marilyn Bowden
With most development sites in the state needing some type of remediation, the Florida Brownfields Association is pushing for enhancements to tax-credit incentives and the scope of liability protection for redevelopers.
"The pace of development has far exceeded the supply of clean land to build on," said Michael R. Goldstein, a Akerman Senterfitt attorney who is chairman of the Florida Brownfields Association, a coalition of environmental activists, developers, real estate brokers, community leaders and the like who share an interest in cleaning and reusing contaminated sites.
Many urban infill sites are brownfields, sites that have been environmentally compromised by former users.
"There are lots of corner gas stations or old industrial sites on Biscayne Boulevard, in Wynwood and in Overtown," he said, "as well as former landfill sites in rural areas."
Mr. Goldstein said the association tried during last year's legislative session to propose amendments to the Florida Brownfields Program, but "the effort came together too late in the session."
Attention attracted to the issue, however, resulted in a Senate-authorized interim project on brownfields that involves the Department of Environmental Protection, Senate Environmental Resources Committee, Department of Public Health, Enterprise Florida and other interested stakeholders, he said, "to round out the program in all respects" before it comes before next year's Legislature in the spring.
First and foremost, Mr. Goldstein said, is a bid to overhaul the tax-credit program.
"The law currently provides for a tax credit of 35 cents for every dollar spent on eligible cleanup costs up to $250,000 in tax credits per year per site," he said. "The overall amount available statewide is $2 million a year."
The association would like to change those figures, he said, to 50 cents on the dollar, a per-site cap of $500,000 and a statewide yearly limit of $5 million. "Without more money in the system," Mr. Goldstein said, "this program is going to grind to a halt."
In addition, he said, it's recommended that tax credits be expanded to include any cleanup-related activity on former landfill sites.
The association recommends an increase in liability protection for developers of brownfields sites who enter into a site-rehabilitation agreement with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Mr. Goldstein said.
"If we can't effectively manage the environmental and regulatory risk," he said, "you don't even get to the financial-viability side of the equation."
The proposed amendment would offer expanded protection from third-party lawsuits, Mr. Goldstein said. It would be based on an existing state-funded program for former dry-cleaning sites enacted in 1995.
The association proposes that the state allocate funds to take a comprehensive look at the community-building aspects of brownfields redevelopment - including making public health a more meaningful component of it, "such as ensuring that environmental justice is considered when redeveloping disadvantaged communities, or providing more money to universities and non-profits so that the successes and shortcomings of the program can be studied empirically and from an academic perspective," Mr. Goldstein said.
A fourth suggestion, not yet adopted by the association but recommended by Mr. Goldstein and other environmental activists, would be to get rid of the term "brownfields" altogether.
"A lot of local government and neighborhood groups and developers might pursue this option but for fact that the term 'brownfields' tends to scare people," he said. "It evokes visions of serious contamination, acres of buried drums, millions of dollars in cleanup costs. It complicates transactions with lenders.
"I'd like to see the names changed from the Florida Brownfields Program to Florida's Land Revitalization and Restoration Program, and from brownfields sites to land-revitalization sites, as has been done in other progressive states."
Mr. Goldstein said larger tax credits and better liability protection are crucial to the state's continued growth.
"I personally believe that a full 50% of the sites that will be subject to brownfields redevelopment in the next three to five years will consist of former landfill sites across the state," he said. "By making the changes we want to see happen, we are going to increase the amount of tax credits that can be tapped into by at least 80%."
Much could be done on the local level to make the redevelopment of contaminated sites more viable, said Mr. Goldstein, who also has led the Miami-Dade Brownfields Oversight Committee since its inception in 1996.
The recommendations include:
NWaiving all fees for the review of reports on brownfields sites by the county's Department of Environmental Resource Management.
•Cutting the time required for a review from 30 days to two weeks.
•Creating a county land bank of remediated properties.
•Adding a grant component for brownfields sites to the state bonds program.
•Providing liability insurance for the re-use community so that lenders could understand when developers or tenants are liable and when they are not.
•Making information on brownfields development readily available through the Internet.
Despite the many impediments that now exist, Mr. Goldstein said, several major projects are under way on remediated land in Miami-Dade - including Biscayne Commons and Biscayne Landing in North Miami; Beacon Lakes in Medley, now the subject of a Harvard University study; and affordable-housing developments on the Miami River and in Liberty City.
"Bicentennial Park," he said, "is the site of a former petroleum bulk storage facility." The downtown Miami park is being proposed as the site for three museums.