It's easy to picture places like the old aluminum factory in Troutdale as an industrial site needing years of environmental cleanup.
After all, it's kind of a given that many factories will pollute, right? Even the most carefully constructed industrial operation will inevitably have a spill of some kind, or maybe employees and visitors will track chemicals out on the soles of their shoes.
That shuttered paper mill or shipyard may be the obvious example of a brownfield, a place at high risk for soil or water contamination because of decades of industrial use.
But stop and look around next time you go to the store. That gas station on the corner?
It's a brownfield – a property where expansion or re-development is complicated by possible or actual contamination.
The dry cleaners using decades-old equipment to clean your jacket?
That could be a brownfield, too.
Turns out, there are hundreds of small brownfields across the region, on parcels that cover 885 acres that might be hard to re-develop without some serious mitigation.
That's the equivalent of two Oswego Lakes or 26 Washington Squares, all of which are immediately flagged for study of possible contamination before new businesses can start developing.
In many cases, there's no obvious party responsible to fix whatever mess was left behind. And with voters ultimately responsible for policies that require brownfields to be mitigated before development, the public might end up with the role of getting those sites ready for rebirth.
That was the topic of discussion at last week's meeting of the Metro Policy Advisory Committee, where leaders from around the Portland region discussed ways to approach those parcels that sit in limbo.
A presentation at that MPAC meeting said the region has more than 6,000 acres of brownfields, an area a little larger than Oregon City. Those range from the small commercial lots to operating factories to former industrial operations now used for offices and stores.
The presentation suggested three ways the public could spur property owners to clean up the parcels: Tax credits for brownfield remediation costs, abatement of property taxes for the initial years of a brownfield project and a change to the way owners of polluted properties are taxed.
It also put out a few other ideas for discussion: A public entity charged with cleaning up or redeveloping brownfields, a regional fund to pay for brownfield cleanup, more streamlined grants for cleanup and establishment of a group to make it easier for developers to streamline brownfield cleanup, and to find grants to pay for it.
The need for more collaboration and assistance seemed to resonate around the MPAC table.
"The City of Portland is very interested in redeveloping brownfields, particularly in areas needing equity attention," said Commissioner Amanda Fritz.
But some of the funding concepts may not be as easy as they seem, warned Troutdale City Councilor Norm Thomas. He was concerned about urban renewal-type concepts to pay for brownfield mitigation.
"It's not that they're a bad idea, it's got a 20 to 30 year payback, so before we see revenue coming into the city to pay for other things, you've got to pay that off," Thomas said.
The presentation also suggested looking in to increased flexibility of what could be built on a brownfield.
That idea seemed to resonate with Bob Grover, the MPAC citizen representative from Washington County. He said that while some brownfields have serious contamination that needs to be mitigated, that might not be the case for all brownfields.
"Some of that stuff is maybe not quite so bad, and maybe we just need to say, some of the regulatory flexibility is we wish it wasn't there, but it's there, and can we develop on top of it and limit somebody's long-term liability and put it under a parking lot?" Grover said. "Sometimes we're trying to make the world perfect, and we'll never make it.
"Sometimes we treat everything as though it's cancer, and it's just a scratch," Grover said.
The Metro Council is set to discuss brownfield issues in the next couple of months.