There are thousands of them scattered across Oregon: parcels of polluted property blighting the landscape and posing potential threats to human health and local ecosystems. They’re called “brownfields”, and they can impact communities even beyond the environmental hazards they pose: depressing property values, degrading community livability and standing in the way of economic development.
But communities concerned with cleaning up and reusing brownfields could have something to celebrate this week as legislation seeking to create new incentives for brownfield cleanup passed unanimously in the Oregon Senate Monday, a week after receiving unanimous approval in the Oregon House of Representatives.
The legislation, House Bill 4084, aims to spur the clean-up of brownfields around the state by giving cities, counties and ports in Oregon the ability to create property tax incentive programs for property owners interested in cleaning up brownfields who meet a set of certain criteria and undertake a remediation process according to DEQ standards.
Co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of twenty state legislators, the bill received strong support from members of the Oregon Brownfield Coalition – a group convened by Metro in spring 2014, which includes more than 40 public agencies, nonprofits and private firms from across the state.
Other states have passed similar legislation. But Metro policy advisor Randy Tucker says Oregon’s version adds significant flexibility by letting cities, counties and ports determine the nature and extent of their own incentive programs.
“It’s a first of its kind in Oregon,” Tucker said. “This gives jurisdictions a lot of flexibility to shape a program that works for them – not only for their local aspirations but also for their own budgetary needs.”
Those local aspirations are at the heart of the bill. For many communities around Oregon, brownfields represent not just a regrettable past but a delayed future as well. Every year a contaminated property sits idle is a year in which jobs could have been created, tax revenue generated by business or a park built and enjoyed by residents.
It is something Jason Miner, executive director of land use advocacy nonprofit 1000 Friends of Oregon, has seen affect communities across the state.
“A single brownfield on a main street, anywhere, can have a real deadening effect on the community,” Miner said, “on tourism, on revenue and the local economy. It’s critically important that we provide tools that enable communities in rural Oregon to reuse these sites, to redevelop them and put them back into efficient and economically productive use.”
Before that productive reuse can occur, though, there is the actual process of remediation that can last anywhere from months to years, and run from thousands of dollars to millions.
That lengthy process and costly investment can often deter potential redevelopers, according to Ted Wall, head of Oregon operations for Maul Foster Alongi, a Portland-based environmental engineering firm.
Wall feels the new legislation could be a game-changer.
“With any transaction like this, it’s stating the obvious, but it has to pencil out,” Wall said. “One important tool for reaching that end is getting credit, so to speak, for that investment on the tax burden side. We did quite a bit of work in looking at tools like this across the country for both Portland and Metro a couple of years ago. In both of those studies, tax abatements were seen as one of the more successful tools used. So it’s been good to see that it is getting some legs here in Oregon.”
The bill does set criteria for what kinds of properties and owners are eligible for incentives. Under the bill, the total amount of tax savings for a given property cannot exceed the cost of cleanup, and a property can receive tax incentives for no longer than 10 years – or 15 if special local criteria are met. Furthermore, no property owner who caused, contributed or exacerbated the contamination of a brownfield can be eligible for the tax incentives to remediate it.
The bill now goes to Gov. Kate Brown for her signature.
In 2015, Brown signed another bill advanced by the Brownfield Coalition, with the overwhelming approval of the Legislature. That bill, House Bill 2734, allows local governments to create municipal land banks to hold certain brownfields for cleanup and redevelopment.