NHARPC CORNER: Brownfields Assessment: A Path Toward Revitalization

J.B. Mack, Principal Planner with the Southwest Regional Planning Commission, and Matthew Monahan, Senior Planner with the Central New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

Does your community serve host to a Brownfield?  A brownfield is any property where expansion or redevelopment is complicated or stymied by real or perceived environmental contamination. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that there are at least 450,000 Brownfields properties nationwide.  While traditionally seen as an urban issue, Brownfields exist in suburban and rural areas as well.  Consider the former gas station, an old rail yard or abandoned junk yard.  Soil, water and air contamination can be caused by many different land use activities.  

Many people equate Brownfields with Superfund sites.  But Brownfields pose less of a serious health or environmental threat than Superfund sites.  A Superfund site is land that is severely contaminated and has high concentrations of hazardous waste or pollution leading to its designation on the EPA’s National Priorities List; Brownfields are not.  Brownfields may still pose health or environmental threats, but typically at a smaller scale.  The idea is that with a good redevelopment plan and some relatively modest investments diagnosing a property’s environmental concerns, Brownfields properties are easier to redevelop.

Since its beginning in 1995, EPA's Brownfields Program has changed the way contaminated property is perceived, addressed, and managed.  EPA's Brownfields Program is designed to empower states, communities, and other stakeholders in economic redevelopment to work together in a timely manner to prevent, assess, safely cleanup, and sustainably reuse brownfields.  The process unfolds in phases starting with an environmental assessment of the property.  If contamination is discovered, then assessment can lead to remediation planning, cleanup, and redevelopment.  The EPA has grants and loan programs available to help along the way from the assessment phase to the cleanup phase.

The first step is the environmental assessment, is itself a phased, methodical process.  Typically, assessment work begins with a Phase I environmental site assessment, the goal of which is to determine if there are any recognized environmental conditions –contamination red flags--associated with the property.  The Phase I assessment involves a public record check of the property, interviews with people that know the property’s history, and a site walk.  Sometimes a Brownfield assessment ends at the Phase I when it’s been determined that there are no recognized environmental conditions.   Other times, it can lead to a Phase II environmental site assessment.  Typically Phase II assessments involve the collection of new data—sometimes groundwater, soil or even indoor air quality data.  Depending on data results, a site may or may not need a remedial action plan or analysis of Brownfields cleanup alternatives.  All of these activities are eligible for EPA assessment funding.

Over the past 15 years, several of New Hampshire’s regional planning commissions (RPCs) have become active in sponsoring Brownfields assessment programs to benefit their member communities.  These programs are conducted in partnership with EPA and the NH Department of Environmental Services and, due to their regional scope, can be used to assess Brownfield properties in a number of communities simultaneously. 

What are the benefits of participating in RPC Brownfield assessment programs?

For the property owner, the benefits stem from the fact that anyone in the chain of title may be liable for a contaminated site – even if they sell it. Through assessment activities, it can be determined whether, and the extent to which, a particular property may be contaminated.  Due diligence is required when purchasing a contaminated site and the RPC brownfields assessment program can help with that process.    Another benefit to the land owner is that there are several programs at the federal and state levels that have been created to aid property owners in the cleanup and redevelopment of Brownfields sites.  Some of this assistance includes federal and state tax incentives, grants and low interest loans, and liability protection. 

For a community, benefits can include economic growth and development as a formerly under-used site has new economic value.  Some developers actively seek out Brownfield sites to develop.  The assessment process sets the stage for this.  Results can include an increase in property taxes, costs to the town for the development can be less due to use of existing infrastructure, and with new business growth comes new jobs and economic activity.  Also, assessment can lead to both environmental and community revitalization. In addition, clean water and soil that result protect our natural resources, and removing blight and replacing it with a park, business or much-needed housing can be a catalyst for community re-birth.

Over recent years, most of New Hampshire’s RPCs have been active in hosting Brownfield assessment programs.   There are five key aspects of any RPC brownfields assessment program:

1) RPCs apply for EPA brownfield funding for use throughout their entire service area;

2) Interested property owners, in conjunction with municipal officials, can utilize the RPC assessment program as opposed to the undertaking the complex process of applying directly to EPA;

3) A Brownfields Advisory Committee comprised of representatives from RPC member communities and other stakeholders provides policy guidance and makes decisions relative to the expenditure of program funds;

4) An environmental engineering firm or firms is retained by the RPC to conduct assessment activities;

5) Participation in the program is voluntary. 

RPC Brownfields programs represent an efficient way of delivering Brownfields assessment services and are therefore viewed favorably by EPA.  Through this model, Brownfields funding is made available to towns and cities as opposed to making funding available for a single community grant recipient.  At the same time, this regional approach allows for local decision-making, encourages local control of the process, and accommodates local opinions in how program funds are best spent.  By localizing the funding it makes it more likely that the most worthy properties will be assessed.  Furthermore, the involvement of professional environmental consultants and engineers ensures that assessments will be done correctly and in compliance with state and federal standards.   Finally, as participation is voluntary, the RPC assessment programs are designed to work only with property owners who are interested in environmental assessment, potential cleanup and redevelopment of their property.  Funding is set aside to provide local technical assistance including answering owner’s questions and helping communities understand the benefits of nominating properties into the program.

A Closer Look:  Two RPC Brownfields Programs

The Central New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission’s (CNHRPC) assessment program began in 2015 with its first grant and recently was awarded a second grant that will take the program through 2020. Despite being a relatively new assessment program, it has been ambitious in tackling a former landfill, two large mills, a town garage and a former cannery during its first two years. One example from the CNHRPC region captures a few aspects of the assessment program in particular. In this case, two abutting properties, one under private ownership and one town-owned were assessed. Both properties are part of a downtown area that has been included in a redevelopment study that includes both park spaces and new economic development. Phase I Assessments were conducted for each parcel. Phase II Assessment work will begin in spring 2018 for both properties at the same time with an eye toward efficiency. These assessments may facilitate assessment activities for the abutting properties within the study area serving as a catalyst for redeveloping the area and implementing the community’s vision.

CNHRPC has retained the services of three environmental engineering firms, which allows CNHRPC to assess more properties in less time by dividing up the work.  In addition, CNHRPC can draw on each individual firm’s particular area of expertise, as needed. This strategy has enabled CNHRPC to work quickly through several complex sites with its first grant. Moving into the second grant this year CNHRPC will be able to build upon this effort by completing reuse plans for existing sites and incorporating new sites.

Southwest Region Planning Commission’s (SWRPC) Brownfields assessment program, which has been operating continually since 2002, has developed an excellent track record using the program to assist its member communities.  SWRPC’s investments to-date have resulted in five brand new community institutions (a community theatre, a municipal community center, a county courthouse facility, a new headquarters for social services agency, and a Headstart facility), over 40 housing units, office space, a senior housing development, a hotel, restaurants, a community food coop, an auto repair and sales shop and a landscaping business.  Over 160 jobs have been created on former Brownfields to-date.  In addition, the SWRPC program has created three green space sites totaling 33 acres, helped facilitate closure and removal of 12 above- and underground storage tanks totaling 104,700 gallon capacity, and provided assessment work that successfully led to the removal of contaminated soil from eight sites.

SWRPC’s experience with Brownfields sites have come in all shapes and sizes ranging from tens of acres to quarter-acre lots.   SWRPC’s member towns either participate directly or are asked to weigh-in with their support every time a project is nominated to the program.  A few years ago, the Town of Peterborough determined it was interested in a recently retired NH National Guard Armory building situated in the community.  To a person unfamiliar with the Brownfields process, the armory building did not seem like an obvious Brownfield.  But the NH National Guard had a long history of using the building for storing and working on vehicles, warehousing armaments and other unknown activities.  The Town was interested in the building for use as an emergency shelter, to host a food pantry program, and for other community activities, but first wanted to better understand any potential health risks associated with the building and any potential environmental liabilities.  The SWRPC Brownfields program assessed the site and determined the building had a clean bill of health.  Today, the Peterborough Community Center is an important town asset hosting multiple activities.  Thanks to the Brownfields program, the community had the peace of mind it needed to purchase the property and it saved the community headaches and thousands of dollars constructing of a brand new facility. 

Conclusion Brownfields, while they can represent an obstacle to reinvesting in one’s community due to either real or perceived contamination, can also be seen as an opportunity. The potential to address contamination and blight is also an opportunity to engage the community in redevelopment planning for some of a community’s most potentially important tracts of land. In addition, some developers actively seek out Brownfield properties for redevelopment. The opportunity to incorporate Brownfields program funds into the overall project budget can be an attractive proposition. For example, a remediation plan may call for a portion of a lot to be “capped” (i.e. covered over with an impervious surface) and the development plan calls for a large parking lot. By incorporating the capping of the contaminated area, paid for with Brownfield cleanup dollars, into the reuse plan a portion of the development cost is lowered. The lesson of such an example, like that of Brownfield sites in general, is that - yes, there may be challenges to be addressed, but there also opportunities to take advantage of. 

J.B. Mack is Principal Planner with the Southwest Regional Planning Commission.  J.B. may be reached by phone at 603.357.0557 or by email at jbmack@swrpc.org.  Matthew Monahan is Senior Planner with the Central New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission. Matt may be reached by phone at 603.226.6020 or by email at mmonahan@cnhrpc.org.