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How now, brownfields?

Thomas Hylton applauds an ambitious effort in Pennsylvania to encourage the best reuse of formerly developed land

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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 market.

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.



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