The Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program has the power to transform communities. Since 1995, the federal program has assessed over 30,000 properties and designated 92,000 acres for anticipated reuse. North Carolina has been working in tandem under state statute since 1997, and has issued more than 550 brownfields agreements to protect projects ranging from $100,000 to over $70 billion in committed private investment through brownfields redevelopment. To be clear, the EPA defines a brownfield as “a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”
The Community and Economic Development Program in UNC’s School of Government has written extensively about brownfield grants and agreements over the years. This post will dive deeper into the connection between brownfields and land revitalization. Land revitalization, defined loosely as “sustainable redevelopment of abandoned properties,” is a key aspect of the brownfield grants program, but it is not always perceived as part of the “bread and butter” grants (i.e. Assessment Grants, Cleanup Grants, and Revolving Loan Fund Grants).
Instead, conversations on land revitalization should be central to the brownfields process, through assessment, cleanup, and redevelopment and reuse. This is essentially how Williamston, NC allocated its funding towards River Landing [CED]: “community outreach, site inventory, environmental site assessments, and cleanup and redevelopment planning.”
The Process: Land Revitalization and Grant Applications
Camilla Warren, Brownfields and Land Revitalization Support at U.S. EPA Region 4, described risk assessment, cleanup, and redevelopment as a “fluid process.”  Brownfield grants act in the same way, as provided in EPA’s Brownfields and Land Revitalization Program brochure. Assessment Grants not only provide up to $300,000 to inventory, characterize, and assess sites, but they also support planning activities and community involvement. (Planning aspects of the Area-Wide Planning Grants, which were discontinued after FY 2017, are now included as part of the application for Assessment Grants.) Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training Grants (EWDJT) allow communities impacted by brownfield sites to receive recruitment, training, and sustainable employment. Technical Assistance to Brownfields Communities (TAB) grants and other technical assistance provide supplementary project funding.
While the application for these grants may seem daunting, CED would like to offer some tips to ease the process:
- Start the application process early. Most solicitations for brownfield grants go online in late August (the Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training Grants are expected this summer 2020) and are due in 60 days (FY2020 timeline example). Read up on general, threshold, and ranking criteria in advance. Know that the 10-page application, while shorter than previous years, is dense. Consider that public-private partnerships may be needed to accomplish goals such as environmental assessment and job training.
- Match community needs to community benefits. The application requires thinking about long-term community needs, so that the expected benefits are specific and tangible. It may help to participate in some regional conversations about successful brownfield projects and joint funding opportunities.
- Combine funding sources. While there may not be clear guidance on multiple simultaneous exclusions for property taxes [CED], it is permissible to use other grants in combination with a brownfields grant. Common funding sources include U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (e.g. Community Development Block Grants), U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, U.S. Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/ National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration, and state revolving loan funds. Municipalities can also take advantage of sites located in Opportunity Zones (e.g. Albany, GA).
Potential Outcomes: Successful Projects
The goals of the land revitalization and brownfields programs suggest some of EPAs’ priorities: job creation, greenspace, and sprawl prevention. Still, there is a lot of flexibility since projects are very site and context specific. Warren described the decision process as “matrix thinking” – there are many possibilities for a given site. She also considered a project successful “when land is being reused in a way that the community appreciates and matches community needs and benefits.”
Very broadly, some projects may fall under adaptive reuse, new construction, green infrastructure, or workforce development. Brownfield redevelopment projects tend to have a ripple effect, such as Fletcher’s downtown revitalization, Wilson’s Cherry Hotel, or Rocky Mount’s Imperial Center. New construction of the Wegman’s in Raleigh required cleaning up industrial land that used to manufacture telecommunications equipment. This blog previously highlighted environmental initiatives: Charlotte’s ReVenture Park [CED], solar power [CED], and wind turbines [CED]. Further “green” and noteworthy projects include Winston Salem’s recreational fields, the Buncombe Sports Park, and Asheville’s greenway. At last, Durham has not only redeveloped gas stations [CED], but also received a Brownfields Job Training Grant – a competitive grant, the EPA typically only funds one of those per region per year.
A Step Further: Participatory Planning?
Finding inspiration for these types of brownfield projects does not have to occur in a vacuum. For those unsure of how to incorporate participatory activities in brownfield redevelopment, Dr. Sandra Cutts provides some insight in her dissertation: “Directly addressing the needs of the public/citizens, listening to the community, and actively engaging citizen stakeholders in their environment were likely linked to meaningful brownfield redevelopment participation,” as well as “successful” or “highly successful” projects.  These elements build upon EPA’s required public participation elements, which include public meetings, notices, and hearings.
The SOG’s Development Finance Initiative (DFI) is able to assist local governments by providing pre-development feasibility analysis on brownfields sites. For more information on DFI services, visit this link.
Rachael Wolff is a Master’s Candidate in UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning, specializing in Land Use and Environmental Planning and pursuing the Natural Hazards Resilience Certificate. She is a Community Revitalization Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative.
 NC Department of Environmental Quality, “Brownfields Program Blue Sheet,” updated Dec. 2019.
 Phone interview with Camilla Warren, Jun. 29, 2020.
 Warren 2020.
 Sandra Cutts, “Brownfield Redevelopment in Birmingham, Alabama: An Evaluation of the Role of Citizen Participation Utilizing the Framework of Arnstein’s Ladder” (To be published, 2020), manuscript.