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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.

1. Reduce

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.

2. Reuse

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.

3. Recycle

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.

Improving Michigan’s
Brownfield Framework

It has been 15 years since the enactment of Part 201. It is time for Michigan to carefully consider the process and results of its brownfield redevelopment. In today’s economy, it is more critical than ever to preserve the ability to redevelop brownfield sites while streamlining the programs and processes to assure we continue with our past success. Michigan once again has the opportunity to become a national leader in the approach we take to brownfield redevelopment. Municipalities are a central player in this important effort, and their voice is critical as program changes are considered in Lansing.

Anne Couture is the owner/founder of Couture Environmental Strategies LLC. She may be reached at 269-629-9842 or

Michigan Municipal League Says Michigan Is Considering Serious Changes to its Brownfield Program

Michigan is considering serious changes to its brownfield program…again. In a comprehensive rewrite, the Legislature and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) are looking to completely change the way brownfield properties are regulated.

Due to its vastly reduced funding and staff, the DEQ wants to change the laws to remove some of its responsibilities, such as reducing DEQ inspection requirements and removing the state guarantee that a property is cleaned up. Instead, consultants who clean up contaminated property would guarantee the cleanup, and be liable if the property is not appropriately remediated. There are also proposed changes to reporting requirements. League staff and members have been involved in these workgroups to ensure that new law won’t make it harder or more costly to remediate a municipally-owned property.   

The Michigan Senate introduced SB 437 (with help from the Michigan Manufacturers Association (MMA), the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, and other interested groups) to: speed up plan review and application response times from DEQ; allow greater certainty that remediation efforts comply with necessary requirements, providing closure to a project; allow for a new review panel and appeals process; and provide a number of other streamlining measures. The workgroup, hosted by Senator Jason Allen, is working with the DEQ to see where the two proposals might be coordinated. 

In addition, the House and Senate will be considering League-requested legislation to allow Brownfield Redevelopment Authorities to utilize tax increment financing (TIF) dollars when voluntarily acquiring property. In a deal worked out with the MEDC (initially opposed to this legislation), brownfield authorities will be allowed to use local TIF for capture but not state education dollars (as land banks can do under current law). Also, keep an eye on the so-called “revenue” bills the Legislature is batting around. The Senate passed SB 838 cutting the amount of brownfield credits available by $10 million. The League strongly opposed the legislation, as brownfield credits create private investment and economic development.

The DEQ and Senate proposals can be viewed on the League website by clicking here.



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