Contaminated Site Developers Would Be Protected From Lawsuits Under Senate Bill

Contaminated Site Developers Would Be Protected From Lawsuits Under Senate Bill

Source: http://news.wfsu.org, April 1, 2014
By: Jessica Palombo

The Florida Senate is set to vote on a bill meant to encourage development of contaminated areas known as brownfields. The measure adds to the tax incentives already offered by giving developers further protection from being sued.

On Tuesday morning, cranes backed up to a multi-story brick building under construction on Tallahassee’s Gaines Street. Pretty soon, new student apartments with shops on the ground floor are set to open here.

“These brownfields properties are often in prime locations. I mean, we’re in the center of the Gaines Street corridor, close to FAMU, close to FSU, close to the governmental centers downtown, says Tallahassee’s environmental compliance manager, John Powell.

He says, “It’s a shame these areas sit idle for so long because of sometimes low levels or really no levels of contamination, just the perception that there is contamination and the fear by investors of not wanting to get involved.”

In this property’s case, the contamination was real. It’s in a part of town where the ground once oozed with industrial byproducts like arsenic and petroleum. Powell says back when the city owned the site, it cleaned it up using financial help from the state’s brownfields redevelopment program before selling it to a private developer.

“Often before a developer wants to get involved, they want to know exactly what it is they’re buying,” Powell says.

Since the late 1990s, Florida has enacted several laws meant to incentivize the development of brownfields including offering tax rebates for creating jobs on the site, tax credits for waste removal and state help with marketing the sites.

A bill now headed to the full Senate would specify developers who clean up a site cannot be sued for property damage by adjacent property owners or other third parties. The provision got the attention of the Florida Justice Association, which raised constitutional issues about the right to legal redress. But Florida Brownfields Association President Michael Sznapstajler says nearby property owners would still be able to call on the developer if it’s discovered more contamination is coming from the former brownfield site.

“That person is required to go clean up that contamination or the liability protection goes away,” he says. “So the minute you’re not following what you’re required to do, you no longer have that protection and you can be sued.”

And the protection would apply only if the developer doesn’t further contaminate the site in the cleanup process.

On Gaines Street, environmental manager Powell says besides the liability protection, he’s most excited about another part of the bill dealing with the term “brownfields” itself. If adopted, the new law would remind local governments that just because a site’s been designated a brownfield, that doesn’t mean you have to call it a “brownfield” when marketing to developers.

Powell says, “We don’t know that ‘brownfield’ necessarily clearly communicates the purpose of the program and really the future plans for redevelopment. We want to look forward and say, let’s call it what it’s gonna be, not what it used to be.”

Seminole County authorities are already leading the way on brownfields’ image makeover. A once-contaminated site there is marketed as S.E.E.D: the Seminole Economic Enhancement District.

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