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Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle Are the Three Rs of Brownfield Redevelopment in Michigan
Sound familiar? The “three R’s” of recycling—reduce, reuse, and recycle—can also be applied to brownfield redevelopment. What is a brownfield? The legal definitions at the federal and various state levels may differ, but essentially brownfields are vacant, abandoned, or underutilized properties whose redevelopment and reuse is challenged by the likely presence of environmental contamination, blight, or obsolescence. From large cities to small villages, almost every community has one brownfield site, be it the old corner gas station or the massive former industrial property that used to be the major employer in the area. Brownfields often include historical buildings and factories that help define the history of the community, and are often located in prominent areas.
Over the past decade, with newly energized efforts to revitalize our urban areas and develop more sustainable communities, brownfield redevelopment has become critical. Environmental cleanup, historic preservation, infrastructure, land use, and economic development all come together in one project that requires significant collaboration on the part of various “stakeholders.” Stakeholders include the community where the property is located, its governmental entity, property owners, liable parties, developers, local, state, and federal regulators, and others. Brownfield redevelopment typically involves addressing a myriad of issues, including environmental contamination, demolition, historical preservation, wetlands, infrastructure, land use, and zoning. Municipalities are often the driving force in the brownfield redevelopment process.
A basic notion of recycling is reducing the amount of waste generated. A similar notion of reducing risk posed by contamination is an important component of brownfield redevelopment. Depending on the project, issues can include reducing risk to the environment, users of the property, the surrounding community, and those who may come in contact with the contamination related to the property. Reducing risk also includes protecting innocent purchasers of contaminated property from liability for cleanup. These issues are all addressed by various elements of Michigan’s environmental cleanup program, also known as Part 201 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA).
In 1995, Michigan led the nation in brownfield redevelopment and environmental cleanup by enacting a regulatory framework, Part 201 of NREPA. The approach resulted in development of one of the most comprehensive, innovative, and effective brownfield redevelopment programs in the nation. Part 201 was followed in 1996 by the Brownfield Redevelopment Financing Act (Act 381), which created brownfield authorities with tax increment financing powers; the adoption of brownfield tax credits; and finally the various brownfield grant and loan programs operated by the MDEQ. These initiatives all came together to invigorate investment and revitalization of Michigan’s brownfield sites. Municipalities are central to this framework—they form brownfield redevelopment authorities, approve brownfield plans, and are eligible to apply for brownfield grants and loans at the state and federal level.
Reusing obsolete or historically significant buildings is often an important component of brownfield redevelopment. Historic preservation can offer tax credits and other financial incentives to a redevelopment project. Preservation of our historical buildings and features also allows a community to embrace its past while celebrating its future, and symbolizes a sense of place in a community.
Reuse of existing infrastructure is also a critical element of brownfield redevelopment. As communities grow and age, their infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, sanitary and storm sewers, water, utilities) also ages and becomes outmoded or decrepit. Investment and improvements in properties that are already served by public infrastructure can often be the driver of new investment in infrastructure repair and upgrade, such as streetscapes, low-impact stormwater management, street improvements, water and sewer upgrades, and burying of power lines.
Finally, brownfield redevelopment can also be viewed as recycling land. Brownfield properties often sit vacant for many years, while properties outside the urban areas, such as farmland or open space, are developed at the urban (or suburban) fringe. Reuse of property through environmental improvements, investment, and revitalization of an area can be viewed as essentially recycling land, to be reused in a more sustainable manner than that which created the brownfield in the first place. Brownfield projects often incorporate “green building” elements (such as LEED and Energy Star certification), low impact stormwater design, and other sustainable features, and provide opportunities for communities to realize their land use planning goals. By recycling land that was already developed, we are saving (and sometimes creating!) precious farmland and open spaces that are so important to our quality of life.