Like nearly every metropolitan area, our region is burdened by many polluted sites called brownfields. Ranging in size from large factory sites to abandoned gas stations and dry cleaners, these properties are often abandoned, neglected or underutilized.
Wherever you live in the region, chances are there is a brownfield in your community. It might be a vacant lot you pass daily, or some polluted dirt behind a chain-link fence, or an abandoned storefront on a nearby commercial corridor.
Metro estimates there are as many as 2,300 sites across the region. Some sites are known to be polluted, while some are only suspected since it is often seen as better for owners not to confirm the pollution. These brownfields cover some 6,300 acres – an area larger than Portland’s Forest Park. If the area covered by brownfields sites were a city in the region, it would be larger than Tualatin, larger than Oregon City and larger than Forest Grove and Cornelius combined.
They must be cleaned up before they can be reused for jobs, housing or other community needs. But cleanup is expensive. Current owners and potential developers are required to pay, even though the original polluters may have disappeared. Meanwhile, complex regulations and permit processes cause delay and create risk that scares away developers and lenders.
Why it matters
Brownfields are barriers to economic development, neighborhood revitalization and public health. They deepen equity challenges; they are three times more likely to be traditionally underserved communities. They limit the return on public investment in roads, sewers and other infrastructure. They also make it hard for the region to assess the amount and readiness of land available inside the urban growth boundary for industry and houses.
In 2015, the region's leaders will decide whether to expand the regional urban growth boundary based on new projections of job and housing growth over the next 20 years. Brownfields complicate this decision because they aren't fully ready for development. Getting these sites cleaned up and redeveloped more quickly could mean reducing development pressure on land outside the urban growth boundary, protecting farms and forests and saving taxpayers money.
A new coalition
This is a problem bigger than any single city, county or region. There isn't an easy fix. In the past, Metro worked through a small grants program to help brownfield owners find funds to clean up and redevelop sites they own. Similar programs have been in place at several state agencies and in the city of Portland.
Today, however, many people see the need for a broader strategy to clean up brownfields. That's why Metro is working with a coalition of local governments, community organizations and businesses to find collaborative strategies to help turn brownfields into green lights for development quickly and equitably.
It's called the Brownfields Coalition: a diverse group working to identify and shape the right strategies for local action and potential state legislation. Represented groups include a wide range of local governments and state agencies; environmental, health, land use and equity advocates; business and development organizations; and several consulting and legal firms. These groups don't always agree on every issue, but they all see the need for a more effective strategy to cleanup and redevelop brownfields around the region and state.
"We currently have too few tools in our toolbox to address brownfields," said planner Miranda Bateschell, who is staffing the program for Metro. "This coalition is all about finding tools we can be confident will work for Oregon."
So far, the Brownfields Coalition has held several meetings to begin assessing options, many of which were discussed in the Brownfields Scoping Report released by Metro in 2012. Some approaches could create financial incentives for cleanup, like tax credits or financial assistance. Oregon has long benefitted from a brownfields fund managed by Business Oregon. The coalition is exploring how to maintain, expand or improve this program.
Other approaches might manage liability and help state and local governments facilitate brownfield cleanup and redevelopment more efficiently. Approaches being considered include streamlining certain elements of permitting and inspection for brownfields, and creating the ability for local governments to form independent land banks. By forming a land bank, local governments might acquire sites and clean them up for purposes that serve the community. Although land banking has been used in several dozen cities around the country, the coalition is exploring whether it is a good fit for Oregon.
Finding a shared voice
There are many possible strategies on the table, and many different voices to discuss them. Although it might identify one or two strategies to pursue during the 2015 Oregon legislative session, the Brownfields Coalition will continue its conversations and assessments well into the future.
If you or your organization are interested in joining or learning more about the Brownfields Coalition, contact Miranda Bateschell at [email protected] or 503-797-1817.
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