January 20, 2022

Bringing Life to Brownfields

Brownfield development 'not for faint of heart'

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Elizabeth Kinney of Cortland walks her dog Sage down the Huntington Street sidewalk Wednesday past the nearby railway included in the Cortland brownfields.

Contaminated sites known as brownfields dot the state — and much of the south and southeast sections of Cortland are filled with them. More sites in Cortland County have the potential of being designated as one.

However, two of the biggest commercial developers in Cortland County have never developed a brownfield, which requires potentially years of cleanup work and millions of dollars.

Developer David Yaman said he has developed sites that were found to be contaminated, but none designated as a brownfield — such as the former Smith Corona factory in Cortlandville.

In every case, he said, he’s gone through the mandated process of getting the land studied and cleaned up, knowing the benefits to come from the property will outweigh the work.

A brownfield is a property complicated by the presence of — or event just the suspicion of — a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminent, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

In May, Thoma Development and other consulting agencies met with city residents to discuss options of revitalizing a 450-acre area in the southeast portion of the city. The sites are designated as brownfields, which one consultant defines as contaminated, vacant or underutilized sites.

Garry VanGorder, executive director of the Cortland County Business Development Corp. and Industrial Development Agency, said if developers have a choice between developing on a clean greenfield site, or a contaminated site, they’ll usually pick the greenfield.

Panel to discuss options for brownfields

Understanding brownfields

More than 450,000 brownfields dot America — 42 of them on Cortland’s south side alone. They’re frequently former industrial properties where developers and municipal officials assume some form of contamination remains. But the contamination has not always been verified.

Brownfields could be other types of sites, too, experts and city officials say. Maybe it’s a former gas station with now-empty underground fuel tanks. Maybe it’s an old dry-cleaner, dating back to the days when dry-cleaning chemicals were more toxic.

Maybe there’s no contamination at all, but that doesn’t make a difference. Developers are less likely to acquire and rebuild on a brownfield.

A federal law adopted in 1980 — the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act — outlines a chain of liability in case a property is contaminated. An investor who buys the property becomes liable for any contamination on it, even if the contamination was caused by someone else and was created decades before. Without knowing what contamination exists — or doesn’t — buying a brownfield poses additional risk, driving developers to never-developed greenfields.

However, New York has developed a program, a Brownfield Opportunity Area, and in May, consultants met with residents to discuss options for the 450-acre Brownfield Opportunity Area.

The properties need to be assessed: what’s contaminated, what’s not? What’s being used, and how? What needs to be done to re-develop them? And what does a community want to do with them?

The idea is to create a plan to develop new uses for land in the area. That plan would open opportunities for actually re-developing the sites.

Risks of development

If the benefits of the site will out weigh the extensive costs and time it takes to develop a brownfield, experts say that would be the only reason to do so.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Kenneth Kamlet, a member of Hinman, Howard & Kattell of Binghamton, specializing in environmental issues. “There needs to be good economic justification.”

Depending on the size of the site, Kamlet said the clean up could cost millions. Developers can clean up the site themselves, which may be more cost effective, he said. However, he recommended before developing a brownfield site, a developer should go through the state’s brownfield program to get a certification the site is clean by the end of the program. The application process could last one to three years, depending on the project.

“You’re proceeding at your own risk if you don’t go through the program,” he said.

Having the certification shows developers have taken steps to thoroughly clean the site, it opens more opportunities for grants for the site and provides the developer liability if a third-party makes a health complaint.

“It’s kind of like a get out of jail free card,” Kamlet said.

DEC brownfield program

Before even filling out the application for the program, Kamlet said, the state Department of Environmental Conservation encourages developers to have a preapplication meeting to go over the project and have any early issues addressed. Once the application is submitted, the DEC will look to see if the site is eligible for the program — researching the contaminants.

If approved, public notice is sent out about the project to all nearby properties and published in the local newspaper. There will be also be public hearings.
“Part of the process includes many steps for public to give opinions on the site,” Kamlet said.

The DEC then does a more in depth review of the project, and if approved, clean up work can begin. On site and off site contamination must be addressed.

All clean up work must be complete before the DEC awards the developer with the certification. An environmental engineer will evaluate the site to make sure the work was done to the satisfaction of the state.

“Cleanup requirements vary depend on the end use of the property,” Kamlet said, whether it is to be used for residential or industrial purposes.

The using it for industrial purposes has less stringent requirements, he said, since the site won’t be inhabited by people.

“It’s not something to enter into lightly,” Kamlet said.

However, the end result could be an economic benefit for the local community, depending on the intended use of the site.

Developing a brownfield
Marc Newman, managing member of Newman Development Group of Vestal, said he has been developing brownfields before the term “brownfield” was first used in 1992.

One of his biggest projects was developing a 27-acre site in Johnson City, which now houses several businesses, including a Walmart. Newman couldn’t recall the exact cost of the the project, but said it went into the millions.

“It was pretty involved,” he said.

It took him about 10 years to get the site where it needed to be, he said. Before presenting the project to the DEC, he worked with environmental consultants and attorneys, and went through volumes of reports about the site.

“It took several years to do early studies and reviews,” Newman said. “It cost easily several hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

He put his findings together and worked with the DEC on what could be done. Newman said, the DEC was willing to help every step of the way.

The Johnson City site, is an extreme example of developing a brownfield, he said, as there were a lot of requirements and steps to getting it done. However, the project made sense financially, he said, because he knew what it was going to be used for. He said he also had a good handle on what was going to be required.

Along with commercials developments, he’s developed brownfield sites for residential use, too. He echoed Kamlet’s comment that there are more requirements for developing those sites, though.

Weighing the risks

There are some sites he’s also walked away from.

“They were too expensive and too long of a process,” Newman said.

It is important to fully review a project before proceeding with it, Newman added.

“There’s definitely a lot of patients needed and understanding,” he said.

In his experience of doing the projects, Newman said, people tend to respond to the projects in a positive way. They want the sites redeveloped. People get frustrated when there is an old factory doing nothing, he said. People like to see the contamination cleaned up and a new site for development.

Yaman said he is not opposed to developing a brownfield if the opportunity arises in the future. The benefits of the project would have to outweigh the time and money needed for the clean up.