How now, brownfields?
Thomas Hylton applauds an ambitious effort in Pennsylvania to encourage the best reuse of formerly developed land
Sunday, Oct. 19, 2003
By Thomas Hylton
Pennsylvania has allocated more tax dollars than any other state to prevent
development in the wrong place - our farm fields. But in 14 years, our $525
million farmland preservation program has protected only about 4 percent of
our agricultural lands.
It´s time for an equally ambitious effort to encourage development in the
right places - our brownfields. The economic stimulus package currently being
negotiated by Gov. Rendell and the General Assembly is the perfect opportunity
to do it.
Pennsylvania´s made a good start. Within weeks of taking office in 1995,
Gov. Tom Ridge signed the most enlightened brownfields legislation in the
nation, the Land Recycling Act. Until that time, environmental dogma demanded
that brownfields - previously used industrial sites - be cleaned up to "Garden
of Eden" standards at the expense of anyone and everyone who had anything
to do with the property. Thanks to that policy, millions were squandered on
needless lawsuits. Thousands of acres lay derelict, even as cornfields and
woodlands were bulldozed for new homes, stores, and offices.
By reducing liability and making it financially feasible to reuse brownfields,
the Land Recycling Act has returned 1,350 once polluted properties to productive
use across the Commonwealth, creating or saving about 30,000 jobs. Another
500 sites are being rehabilitated right now.
Pittsburgh has won national acclaim for its brownfield projects, such as
Washington´s Landing, the South Side Works, and the new residential neighborhood
sited on a slag heap, Summerset at Frick Park.
Pennsylvania´s Land Recycling Act has inspired a score of other states to
follow its example. A similarly-inspired federal law, signed here in Pennsylvania
last year by President Bush, makes it easier to clean up brownfields nationwide.
Our current program is just a preview. Much more can be done. Thanks to its
industrial heritage, Pennsylvania has thousands more brownfield sites in every
part of the state, just waiting to be redeveloped.
So far, we´ve spent $57 million cleaning up brownfields - about a tenth of
what we´ve invested in farmland preservation. But redirecting development
onto brownfields also saves farmland. Because brownfields were among the first
lands developed, nearly all of them are in our cities and small towns, close
to transportation and served by existing infrastructure.
In prior administrations, economic development was promoted wherever a business
or development agency promised to create jobs. So tens of millions of tax
dollars were funneled into building corporate and industrial parks in cornfields,
promoting sprawl and sucking the life out of any city or town nearby.
Even funding earmarked for blighted areas was misused.Virgin land was declared
"blighted" because it had sinkholes or poor access.
Focusing economic development on brownfields and their kin, grayfields -
clean but abandoned commercial properties - will assure that future state
dollars revitalize our cities and towns (protecting our countryside at the
same time). Land recycling can also serve political needs. Abandoned properties
are ubiquitous, so every legislative
district has them.
Government does not create market demand, of course. People do. But Pennsylvania
can help enlightened developers cultivate markets in our cities and towns.
Changing demographics - a growing number of aging baby boomers, singles, single-parent
households, and immigrants - mean more people are willing to consider living
and working in cities and towns. Developers like John Westrum in Philadelphia
and the Rubinoff Company in Pittsburgh are already tapping this huge potential
In England, one where more than 4 million housing units will be needed in
the next two decades, more than 60 percent of new housing is built on recycled
land. That´s how the United Kingdom has preserved nearly 90 percent of its
land area as countryside or wilderness.
Land recycling is one place the Rendell administration can find common ground
with Republican legislators. The person most responsible for the 1995 Land
Recycling Act is Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill, who first proposed
the law. Sen. Brightbill, R-Lebanon, is currently lead sponsor of the Republicans´
economic stimulus bill. Amendments have been proposed to ensure state funding
is dedicated to land recycling. With that change, the legislation can fulfill Gov. Rendell´s
campaign promise to provide economic help where it´s needed, revitalize our
towns, and protect our countryside.