Revitalizing blighted properties
Last week, a small crowd gathered in an industrial railyard at the southern end of Battery Street in Burlington. Gov. Peter Shumlin, Carol Tucker, New England brownfields director for the EPA, and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, along with representatives from Vermont’s congressional delegation, joined Secretary Miller and me as we launched a new program that will advance the redevelopment of old industrial sites in Vermont. Under this new initiative, known as the Brownfield Economic Revitalization Alliance (BERA), we will help communities and developers across Vermont redevelop blighted properties in their towns.
Vermont towns are home to hundreds of former industrial sites that remain vacant because of past activities that resulted in pollution. The existing brownfields program helps to get these properties assessed, cleaned up and back into productive use. It can be a long and complicated process to navigate, and questions about liability can deter developers, banks and insurers from getting involved. BERA was created to address these concerns and to make it easier to move complex brownfield projects, like the railyard project in Burlington, toward redevelopment.
Under BERA, selected sites will receive priority funding from the state and coordinated and expedited permitting. BERA will bring together all of the state, local, regional and federal agencies involved in a particular project at the very start to help the developer identify potential issues and then navigate their resolution. With better communication between federal, state, regional and local officials, there will be less cost to the project developer and less time spent waiting for the necessary approvals. The overarching goal of this initiative is to get redevelopment projects completed — faster, cheaper and easier — so that communities that host these properties can take advantage of all of the benefits of a revitalized downtown center.
This is good news for Vermont towns and for Vermont’s environment. Redeveloped brownfields almost always create jobs, first during the construction phase and then again as businesses, restaurants, health services and housing take the place of once abandoned and blighted space in the heart of the community. Reusing existing space and structures preserves open space and working landscapes, and redeveloping in central locations reduces emissions of greenhouse gases by limiting the miles that people need to travel to work, shop or recreate.
Not every potential brownfield redevelopment project is right for BERA. The program is designed for high profile sites within a community that have potentially complex pollution and legal issues, where there is local support for the redevelopment and a developer who has been identified or who is ready to proceed with the project. BERA projects must also yield positive benefits beyond cleanup that may include job creation and new housing, and potentially stimulate additional economic development.
BERA projects are selected by a team of public and private sector representatives who determine which projects will most benefit from the program. The first three projects have been selected: the former Fonda property in St. Albans; the Railyard Enterprise Project in Burlington and the 453 Pine St. parcel in Burlington.
These projects will have support from the following state programs: Agency of Natural Resources, Agency of Commerce and Community Development, Vermont Department of Health, attorney general’s office, Agency of Transportation and Public Service Department. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also committed to having dedicated staff to assist on each BERA project.
Redeveloped properties in downtowns are an excellent way to recover vibrant, beautiful and clean communities. By working together, state, local and federal partners can turn these underused industrial wastelands into community assets where people can work, live and play.
Deb Markowitz is Vermont secretary of natural resources.