What to do about Brownfields?

City council currently has a mini debate on its hands. Windmill’s Zibi development is seeking help from the city to clean up the Domtar lands. Much of the island is polluted and the city’s Brownfields policy offers to cover up to 50% of such clean-up costs (not through a direct payout; the money comes from a reduction in property taxes for the next few years).

Somerset Councillor Catherine McKenney (the councillor for the area) doesn’t like the idea, in part because this includes federal lands that the government never bothered cleaning up (though there seems to be some question about how much of the problem was really the fault of the feds).

The clean-up would cost the city approximately $60M, and that’s way more than has ever been spent before on remediation.

This is a worthwhile issue in its own right, but, perhaps more importantly, it’s foreshadowing for an even bigger issue–Lebreton Flats. The developers have made it known that they would like to tap into the Brownfields program. The mayor has also let it be known that he wouldn’t support such an request (nor should he).

Lebreton is clearly an issue where the fed not only robbed residents of the use of Lebreton Flats for half a century (having razed a low-income neighbourhood they found distasteful), but also let the land rot. The extent of the contamination is clearly their fault.

Lebreton is also incredibly bigger than any other Brownfields project, and would require far more money than anyone has ever requested, including Windmill. It’s just inconceivable to think the city should be on the hook for this.

So, really, the question is: what should be done about contaminated lands? Is there a future for the Brownfields program?

Back in the fall, the CBC’s Joanne Chianello took a thorough look at the issue. I’d suggest you read the whole thing, but the basic takeaways are:

  • There’s no way to know if any development wouldn’t have happened without a Brownfields payment (which is the supposed reason we have the policy).
  • The city has no data on the actual benefits of the program.
  • Because developers and landowners know about the policy, they factor the windfall into the purchase price of land (thus meaning it’s a transfer of wealth from residents to a landowner who let the land rot).
  • If you limit sprawl, you encourage development on these lots, regardless.
  • Other jurisdictions do other things, like re-zonings, to entice the development of contaminated property (we do this, too, but we just throw the money on top).

So what do we do? Well, a friend had a suggestion:

Capping it certainly makes some sense. This way, no Lebreton-like deal could come looking to us claiming poverty…but that doesn’t really address the validity of the policy in the first place.

Scrapping is also pretty desirable. We have no way of knowing if it’s doing anything, or if we’re just foregoing a whole bunch of tax revenue.

But totally scrapping it would leave open the possibility that some vacant lots might not be developed due to soil contamination.

Another option, would be to only provide payment to contaminated lands that are vacant for a while…say three or five years, maybe? But that’d just encourage people sitting on property until it qualifies for funding (and we already pay landowners to keep their lots vacant by slashing their property taxes). If we wanted to do this, we’d need to start charging delinquent lot owners penalties for keeping their land vacant (note: we should do this; our current policy is incredibly stupid).

So we’re pretty much left with scrapping it. It might be wise to keep the possibility of re-zoning to entice development on lands that otherwise sit vacant, but it really doesn’t seem like there are that many of them out there.

So maybe we’ll give money to Zibi, but that should be the absolute last time we ever do this.

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