Promoting More Equitable Brownfield Redevelopment

Nancey Green Leigh, Setembro 1, 2000

Because many brownfield sites are located in areas with depressed property values, the cost of remediation and redevelopment can be greater than the expected resale value. These sites, referred to here as low-to-no market value brownfields, are rarely addressed under current policies and programs. Rather, the current practice of many brownfield redevelopment projects is to select only the most marketable sites for remediation and redevelopment, essentially perpetuating the age-old “creaming” process. Private and public developers’ avoidance of the lowest market value parcels typically excludes disadvantaged neighborhoods from programs aimed at redeveloping brownfields and creates the potential for widening existing inequalities between better-off and worse-off neighborhoods.

The Role of Land Banks

In a recently completed project supported by the Lincoln Institute, I examined the barriers to brownfield redevelopment and focused on promising approaches for improving the prospects of the least marketable sites. The specific research goal was to identify land transfer procedures and processes through which land bank authorities and other community land development entities would be willing to receive vacant brownfield property that is tax-delinquent and environmentally contaminated, and then arrange for its remediation and sale.

A local land bank authority is typically a nonprofit entity established by either a city or county to address the problems of urban blight and to promote redevelopment. The original motivation for this project was to seek a solution to the problem of land banks being unwilling to accept some tax-delinquent brownfield properties due to fears of becoming liable for the contamination on these properties. Removing that barrier improves the prospects for promoting productive land redevelopment and reducing property vacancies to enhance a community’s economic development.

Over the course of this project, the nature of the original problem shifted in a positive way when recent federal guidelines clarified that land bank authorities that are part of a local government and acquire brownfield properties involuntarily (e.g., because they are tax-delinquent) are not liable for any contamination. With removal of this legal liability, it became clear that the real problem land banks face in taking on tax-delinquent, low-to-no market value properties is a lack of financial resources to arrange for their subsequent remediation, sale or redevelopment.

For example, the Atlanta/Fulton Country Landbank operates on a model of clearing title on properties to allow for private redevelopment, since it does not have the financial resources to act as the redeveloper itself. The Landbank, like most of the public or quasi-public entities we have identified as engaging in brownfield redevelopment, is promoting a market-based, creaming process of redevelopment. While there is validity in employing such processes, to do so exclusively poses a serious public policy issue. It serves to widen the inequality between the most depressed neighborhoods, where the low-to-no market value properties are most likely to be found, and the neighborhoods experiencing revitalization and brownfield cleanup.

Barriers to Brownfield Redevelopment

Our review of current land bank activity in other cities has revealed that, overall, land bank authorities do not take a pro-active stance on brownfield redevelopment for several reasons: operational limitations, fear of legal liability, and/or lack of funds to cover remediation costs. Our national search yielded only two exceptions: the Cleveland Land Bank and the Louisville/Jefferson County Land Bank Authority. But of these two, only the Louisville/Jefferson County Land Bank has pursued brownfield properties actively and has made the required changes in its by-laws to effectively acquire, remediate and redevelop contaminated properties. The Cleveland Land Bank experience in brownfield redevelopment was with a donated parcel that was suspected of being contaminated.

Operational Limitations

The two major operational requirements that currently deter land banks from entering into brownfield redevelopment are the need to identify an end user for a property before the property can be acquired by the land bank and the limited scope of activity for which the land banks were established originally. For example, the Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard land banks in Massachusetts were established for conservation purposes; they rarely deal with properties that would be considered brownfields, although their organizational structure makes them ideal candidates to do so.

Fear of Legal Liability

As with any owner of contaminated property, land banks are concerned about the legal liability associated with brownfields. Although most state volunteer cleanup programs offer liability exemptions for municipalities, the issue of federal liability still has to be addressed when land banks choose to acquire contaminated properties.

Federal legal liability arises from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund, but both federal and state governments have developed programs and guidelines aimed at eliminating that barrier. As a point of clarification, it is not the intent of federal or state programs to release responsible parties from their legal obligation to clean up property that they have contaminated, but, rather, to facilitate brownfield remediation and redevelopment by reducing the fear of unwarranted legal liability.

Landowners who are not responsible for contaminating the property, who did not know, and had no reason to suspect contaminants were present on the property are not liable under CERCLA sections 107(b) and 101(35). This is often referred to as the “innocent landowner defense.” Sections 101(20)(D) and 101(35)(A) protect federal, state and local governments from owner/operator liability if they acquire contaminated property involuntarily as a function of performing their governmental duties, including acquisition due to abandonment, tax delinquency, foreclosure, or through seizure or forfeiture authority. This process was further clarified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in June 1997 to facilitate the work of state and local brownfield redevelopment programs.

For land bank authorities that are a part of local government, the above-mentioned program should protect the acquisition of contaminated properties through the land bank’s normal operational functions. However, any land bank seeking to acquire contaminated properties should contact its regional EPA office for further legal clarification and assistance with the redevelopment process.

Lack of Funds for Remediation Costs

The often costly remediation process is another significant problem for land banks seeking to redevelop brownfields. Even when the mission of the land bank is to eliminate blight and spur revitalization, both of which are directly related to brownfield reuse, limited budgets prevent interested and willing land banks from acquiring brownfields for remediation and redevelopment. Therefore, while the land bank authority could be helpful in forgiving the property taxes owed on the parcel as an incentive for reuse, the property’s redevelopment potential is still thwarted by its having little-to-no market desirability.

Promising Alternatives for Low-value Sites

When the focus of this research project became the identification of promising approaches for improving the redevelopment prospects of low-to-no market value brownfield sites, we began to examine different kinds of roles for land banks. These included identifying possible ways of raising revenues for land banks and other community development agencies to use in financing the remediation and redevelopment of low-to-no market value sites, and considering potential reuses of such sites, including open space, residential or commercial/industrial uses.

One alternative is found in community land trusts, which generally are private non-profit corporations in both urban and rural areas engaged in social and economic activities, such as to acquire and hold land for affordable housing development. While traditionally they have not focused on conservation issues, their model could be adapted for brownfield redevelopment efforts. One approach for solving the problem of low-to-no market value brownfields is a community land trust modeled after Boston’s Dudley Neighbors, Inc., which received from the city the power of eminent domain to acquire vacant land and buildings in its neighborhood. This strategy provides an alternative mechanism to a citywide land bank for acquiring brownfield properties, and it can be used to target geographic areas in greatest economic decline.

Another promising alternative to the traditional land bank is modeled after Scenic Hudson, an environmental advocacy organization and land trust located in Poughkeepsie, New York. It has an urban initiative to acquire, remediate and develop environmentally friendly reuses for derelict riverfront sites. Among its projects has been the redevelopment of a twelve-acre abandoned industrial waterfront for a public park, the Irvington Waterfront Park. Scenic Hudson has proven that, with cooperation from public and private organizations, land trusts can be effective vehicles for brownfield redevelopment.

The most popular form of land trust is one founded to protect natural areas and farmlands. Such land trusts most often operate at the local or regional level to conserve tracts of land that have ecological, open space, recreational or historic value. If land trusts choose to expand their conservation goals to include urban open space, they could become very helpful partners in public/private projects to create green space and parks from remediated brownfields. The Scenic Hudson land trust model specifically addresses brownfield redevelopment for the stated purpose of stemming greenfield development.

To address the needs for financing the redevelopment of low-to-no market value brownfields, the Louisville Land Bank Authority’s approach is promising. It established a fund that uses the profits from the sale of remediated brownfields to fund future remediation projects. Another possibility for raising funds for land banks is suggested by the two-percent transfer fee the state of Massachusetts authorized for its Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard land banks to purchase open space. The transfer fee idea could be adapted by land banks to create a fund for brownfield remediation.

The research project also sought to identify municipalities that did not have a specific land bank authority, but did have a municipal office or program that dealt with tax-delinquent properties and their redevelopment. Two municipalities found to be engaging in noteworthy and innovative brownfield redevelopment are Kalamazoo, Michigan, and, Emeryville, California. Kalamazoo’s brownfield pilot approach of creating brownfield redevelopment districts emphasizes community development over traditional, market-based economic development goals. The city uses stakeholder groups to design brownfield projects and to plan for redevelopment.

Emeryville has determined, through surveying its property owners and developers, that offering financial assistance for site assessment alone is not effective; it must be backed up by financial assistance for remediation. The city’s brownfield program is based on the principle that “sharing of risks should lead to sharing of rewards.” That is, if a community bears the residual risk for permitting the private sector to conduct risk-based cleanup, a portion of the private sector’s savings on remediation expenses should be shared with the community. The Emeryville approach to brownfield redevelopment also recognizes that smaller sites and projects require proportionately more loans, grants and technical assistance than do larger sites and projects.


At the present time, there is a paucity of programs and strategies to address tax-delinquent, low-to-no market value brownfield properties in marginal urban neighborhoods. If this deficiency persists, the current brownfield redevelopment movement will likely lead to a widening of intraurban inequalities. If municipalities, land bank authorities, and community development organizations will recognize the need for, and move towards, promoting more equitable brownfield redevelopment, the approaches presented in this article hold promise for correcting this deficiency and preventing wider inequalities. Further, such actions could remove potential polution sources and health hazards from the neighborhood, provide much-needed open space, and hold the remediated property until the surrounding area increases in value and the site can be redeveloped through traditional market processes.


City of Emeryville, Project Status Report, Emeryville Brownfields Pilot Project. Emeryville, California. November 1998. See also

Rosenberg, Steve. “Working Where the Grass Isn’t Greener: Land Trusts in Urban Areas.” Land Trust Alliance Exchange. Winter: 5-9, 1998.

U.S. EPA. Handbook of Tools for Managing Federal Superfund Liability Risks at Brownfields and Other Sites. Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. November 1998.

Nancey Green Leigh, AICP, is associate professor of city planning in the Graduate City and Regional Planning Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She teaches and conducts research on urban and regional development, industrial restructuring, local economic development planning, and brownfield redevelopment.