Mears: Brownfields in the Green Mountain State

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by David K. Mears, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

Looking across the Black River at the refurbished building that used to house the revitalized former Fellows Gear Shaper factory, the last adjective to pop into my mind was “brown” or “field.” Once completed, the beautifully restored 19th century factory will hold medical offices, restaurants, shops and more. I was there with Gov. Shumlin, Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz and Agency of Commerce and Community Development Secretary Lawrence Miller to celebrate the award of several U.S. EPA grants to help Vermont communities clean up similar sites across the state.

Vermont is home to many properties contaminated as a result of historical uses. Brownfields can be difficult to redevelop, since the perceived risk of being held responsible for possible environmental contamination may discourage investment in their revitalization. Instead these properties and buildings deteriorate, becoming unsightly liabilities for the communities where they are located.

For developers, brownfields can be revenue generators. While it may take a bit longer to work through the required steps, sites with low or moderate levels of contamination can turn a tidy profit once redeveloped. Even sites with significant contamination can become profitable given the level of available incentives.

 Redeveloped brownfields almost always create jobs, first during the construction phase and then again as businesses, restaurants, health services and housing take the place of once abandoned and blighted space in the heart of the community.

For communities, finding ways to encourage development in their downtowns provides many benefits. Removing the barriers to brownfield redevelopment returns properties to the tax rolls, improves adjacent property values and reduces the risk of suburban sprawl. Often, redeveloping existing structures preserves historic buildings that have influenced the development pattern of an area. Redeveloped brownfields almost always create jobs, first during the construction phase and then again as businesses, restaurants, health services and housing take the place of once abandoned and blighted space in the heart of the community.

On the other end of the spectrum, reusing existing space and structures preserves open space and working landscapes. Redeveloping in central locations reduces emissions of greenhouse gases by limiting the miles that people need to travel to work, shop or recreate. These projects are win-win for the residents; a liability is transformed to create a more livable, more sustainable community.

It was with this in mind that Gov. Shumlin announced a joint effort to encourage redevelopment of brownfield sites in our communities. This new effort will increase coordination and will simplify and fast-track brownfield revitalization projects that participate in the program.

With better communication between federal, state, regional and local officials, there will be less cost to the project developer and less time spent waiting for the necessary approvals. Selected sites will receive priority funding from the state and coordinated and timely permitting. The overarching goal of this initiative is to get redevelopment projects completed – faster, cheaper and easier – so that communities that host these properties can take advantage of all of the benefits of a revitalized downtown center.

To be successful, this effort will require collaboration among many public and private segments and sectors. Ultimately, the success of brownfield redevelopment will depend on how well all of these players work together.

Vermont can be a model for this kind of cooperation given our commonly held understanding of the close relationship between our economic vitality and our environmental health. The redevelopment of brownfields represents an exciting opportunity to improve the lives of Vermont residents and the resilience and livability of our state.

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