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Redeveloping Brownfields in Virginia

Author, Brownfields of Dreams in the Old Dominion: Redeveloping Brownfields in Virginia, William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review (Summer 2000)
Excerpts From Brownfields of Dreams

In virtually every city across the nation with older industrial zones, public officials are grappling with the challenges associates with abandoned or underutilized industrial and commercial properties – also know as brownfields. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines brownfields as “abandoned, idled, or under-used industrial and commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination.” These properties include once prosperous industrial areas of Chicago and Detroit; closed timber mills that dot the rural landscape of the Pacific Northeast; abandoned mining operations in Arizona and California; and idle shipyards and railroad depots in Delaware and Virginia.

Throughout this decade, state and locate governments have come to view the redevelopment of brownfields as a unique opportunity to solve multiple problems concurrently. With a minimum of public investment, brownfields redevelopment initiatives promote private sector investment and involvement in community revitalization activities. Many brownfields are located in established urban areas where redevelopment projects can easily access highways, utilities, public works, and other existing infrastructures. Projects that target blighted communities increase employment opportunities, expand the tax base, and reduce costs associated with preventing crime in these decaying areas. Redevelopment efforts also help to reduce hazardous chemical levels on idle properties, curb sprawl development, improve air quality, reduce traffic congestion, and preserve open space and farmland. In short, brownfields redevelopment offers a cost effective, environmentally sensitive solution that encourages economic revitalization in depressed communities across the nation.

The interplay between economic development issues and environmental concerns has dominated local development considerations. Developers and investors, cautious of environmental liability, have historically shied away from properties that were previously used for industrial or commercial activities. These properties, subject to many environmental regulations and procedures, can also require additional construction delays that often neutralize the economic viability of development projects. As a result of this uncertainty, investors are reluctant to finance development projects on these properties. This, in turn, causes developers to simply forsake urban cores for undeveloped land in rural and suburban areas that is less expensive and free from the labyrinth of environmental regulations.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has not been immune to development patterns that have abandoned industrial and commercial sites with actual or perceived contamination. Brownfield sites can be found across the Commonwealth, from the banks of the Eastern Shore to the valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ), working in coordination with the EPA, is leading the administrative charge to implement programs that will return Virginia’s brownfield sites to productive use. Moreover, EPA has created the Brownfields National Partnership for the purpose of coordinating federal agency efforts that address many of these concerns. The Partnership represents a commitment on behalf of over twenty federal agencies to coordinate and actively promote policies and/or programs that encourage the redevelopment of brownfields.

[These efforts] mark the beginning of a needed, coordinated approach to promote the redevelopment of areas that are plagued by underutilized industrial and commercial properties. By utilizing both state and federal incentives, thereby taking an holistic approach toward brownfield redevelopment, local governments, developers, and communities have many of the tools necessary to begin the process of eradicating the brownfield virus that has spread through Virginia’s older industrial and commercial communities.

The future appears to be bright for these once idle and abandoned properties. While the term “brownfields” may not be considered part of Virginians’ everyday vernacular, the concept and need to recycle our urban environment has begun to gain a foothold in the minds of many Virginians. There is an ever-increasing understanding that in order to revitalize our cities and preserve our open spaces we must encourage the redevelopment of idle industrial and commercial properties. This awareness is directly reflected in the increasing number of political candidates who are being elected and initiatives enacted that promote concepts such as “smart growth” and that curtail “urban sprawl.” Virginians are demanding to live in sustainable communities that encourage open space preservation and urban revitalization, and now the tools are available to make this vision a reality.

Co-Author, Guide to Federal Brownfields Programs, Northeast-Midwest Institute (1999)