Making brownfields work

Polluted properties: County participation, changes in state law vital in promoting redevelopment.

August 13, 1999

MARYLAND'S young "brownfields" program to clean up and redevelop polluted lands is still trying to find its way.

In the program's first two years, only four property owners have qualified for state grants and tax credits, and 52 have applied for voluntary cleanup registration, which limits their legal liabilities.

The extreme caution of regulators and property owners alike should not be seen as a rejection of the initiative's main goal: to remove harmful contaminants at former industrial sites and reuse the properties, preventing the sprawl of development into open space "greenfields."

But the state's initial experience suggests ways in which the program could be strengthened.

First, all counties that have identified reusable brownfields should enact consistent legislation to promote their redevelopment through tax incentives. Only Baltimore City and five counties, including Baltimore County, have done so. The metro counties of Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and Carroll are not participating. They should.

State law needs to be changed to permit qualified property owners to get state aid in making the initial survey of contamination on their lands, which can cost as much as $200,000.

Property owners, many of whom did not contaminate the land but are legally liable as successor titleholders, must be better informed of the program's rules and benefits by the Department of Business and Economic Development.

The state Department of the Environment must be more vigorous in seeking out polluted sites that endanger public health and environment, an effort that can only produce more voluntary cleanup plans from brownfields owners.

There could be additional incentives, even outside the brownfields umbrella, to redevelop idle land. This would enhance the economic base of the community.

Maryland's brownfields program won't work for all contaminated sites, but it remains a worthwhile concept to recycle our throwaway lands.

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