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SG-W:/ county brownfields authority

On Wednesday, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners appointed nine
people to a new county brownfields authority.  At its best, this group
could oversee the redevelopment of blighted and polluted urban areas in
Washtenaw County.  At its worst, it would be a new local source of
anti-environmental corporate welfare, paid for with your taxes.

Many of you may recall that last year's Proposal 1 included money (15% of
the total) for "urban redevelopment."  It was thought that much of that
money would be devoted to helping clean up and redevelop contaminated
properties -- which have now been labeled by planners and developers as
"brownfields."  Sounds great in concept:  build in the city, not in the
country, clean up pollution.

Even before Prop 1 went down to defeat, the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce
was promoting the brownfield authority as another funding mechanism. Under
a 1996 state law, counties and muncipalities can establish these
authorities to oversee and finance redevelopment projects.  The City of
Ypsilanti and, I believe, the City of Milan have already created their own
brownfield authorities.  Once established, the authority can use
tax-increment financing to develop a brownfield fund.  This is the same
kind of taxing mechanism used by downtown development authorities;  it
collects the taxable value of future developments and earmarks that money
for its specific purposes.  So, in the case of a brownfield authority, a
developer gets to use some of the future taxes that his or her project
would have otherwise generated for other county purposes.  Fair?  Depends
on whether you think the diverted taxes will make the difference in getting
developers to build on blighted land, and whether the cleanup/development
is worth having.

But even if you like the funding mechanism, there are still some major
problems that environmentalists should be on the watch for.

First, the cleanups need to be done well.  Unfortunately, the Michigan
Legislature gutted its environmental cleanup law four years ago, and the
DEQ has decapitated its environmental response division.  Developers are
"cleaning up" property in ways that leave pollution in the ground, move it
into other bodies of water, let it escape to neighboring properties, and to
levels that weren't considered safe five years ago.  However, the County's
brownfield authority could require that all projects that get county
funding would have to meet the state's pre-1995 levels.

Second, local governments need to have control over the cleanups.
Neighbors have the biggest stake in environmental cleanups, but they have
no legal standing to participate in cleanups.  Ann Arbor and Scio Township
have tried, for years, to get the Pall/Gelman company to clean up its
groundwater pollution responsibly, and courts have consistently ruled that
they have no control over the cleanup plan.  All responsibility rests with
the state.  But the County's brownfield authority could require that all
projects that get county funding would, as a condition of receiving those
funds, have to agree to accept local control over cleanup plans.

And third, environmentalists and citizens need a bigger say in the
authority.  Only one of the nine seats on the board is designated for an
environmental representative.  Guy Williams, a National Wildlife Federation
staffer and Ecology Center board president, was appointed to that seat.  He
will be joined by two business community reps, two government officials,
one social service agency, one county commissioner, and two general public
reps.  The public seats were filled with a banker and a political
appointee.  The County's brownfield authority could follow the lead of some
other brownfield groups, and establish a citizen advisory committee as a
sort of internal watchdog.

The Ecology Center unsuccessfully lobbied county staff and commission to
include these provisions in the authority's mandate as it was being
established.  Now it's up to the authority to work these issues out itself,
and it'll take public pressure to get them to take it seriously.

Mike Garfield
Ecology Center
117 N. Division
Ann Arbor, MI  48104
(734) 761-3186 ext. 104
(734) 663-2414 (fax)