20 years later, Brownfields Act remains a pioneering policy

This op-ed originally appeared in Viewpoint on bizjournals.com on September 13, 2018. The joint op-ed was authored by Ned Abelson, attorney at Goulston & Storrs and co-chair of the NAIOP Brownfields Committee, and by David Begelfer, NAIOP Massachusetts CEO and an active participant in the passage of the Brownfields Act. 

Twenty years ago this summer, Gov. Paul Cellucci signed into law the “Brownfields Act,” establishing new incentives and protections to encourage parties to clean up and redevelop contaminated property in Massachusetts. This law provides comprehensive liability relief and financial incentives to attract new investment in these properties while ensuring a safe and effective cleanup. Simply put, without the passage of the Brownfields Act, many communities that are now thriving would be filled with vacant and contaminated properties.

Suburban Office Park

A Brownfield site is blocked from productive use because of potentially hazardous contaminants. Prior to the passage of this law, developers considering cleaning up and then redeveloping such a property often concluded the effort was simply too risky, too expensive and too time-consuming to offset future profits from leasing the property to retailers, businesses and residents.

A model for states across the country, the Brownfields Act allows innocent Massachusetts real estate owners and operators to apply to the Department of Revenue for a state income tax credit to offset the net cost of the cleanup. Any party that contaminated a property or owned the property at the time of contamination is not eligible for the tax credit. Depending on the extent of the completed cleanup, the taxpayer may apply for a credit equal to either 25 percent or 50 percent of the cleanup cost. If the site has an Activity and Use Limitation, or AUL — typically a use restriction placed on title as part of the cleanup process — then a 25 percent credit would apply; if no AUL, then eligibility increases to 50 percent. Without this tax credit, many contaminated properties would remain a public health risk and there would be no incentive to clean up and return these sites to productive use.

The credits have provided critical additional funding for community development corporations, or CDCs, and other community-based organizations. And a change to the law in 2006 has helped nonprofit organizations, which were previously not able to use all of their credits, to sell or transfer the credits to others. In recent years, the state Department of Revenue has distributed between $28 million and $61 million annually in Brownfields tax credits, benefitting between 40 and 80 development projects each year.

The Brownfields Act was created through a unique collaboration of Massachusetts policymakers and a truly diverse set of stakeholders. Developers, town officials, environmentalists, business association representatives, scientists and many others spent hundreds of hours negotiating the details of this landmark legislation.

For Massachusetts residents and businesses, the benefits have been significant. By cleaning up these sites, public health conditions improved, local communities were revitalized, housing was built in vacant areas, new jobs were created, and municipal real estate tax revenue grew. For developers and their partners in engineering, construction and architecture, redeveloping a former industrial site no longer posed a financial or legal death sentence.

For a very modest investment by the commonwealth, billions of dollars of investments have been made throughout the state, benefitting its citizens and municipalities. We commend the Legislature’s work this session to provide for a five-year extension of the Brownfields tax credit in the Housing Bond bill, signed by Gov. Baker on May 31. Twenty years later, the Brownfields Act’s approach to economic development and public health policy continues to be bipartisan, beneficial, bold and, most important, very successful.

 

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