Brownfield Definition

What is a Brownfield?

definition of brownfield A Brownfield is real estate or land which has been previously developed and may require environmental remediation or impact mitigation prior to reuse—or it may not. The redevelopment of a Brownfield is complicated by many questions because the true cost to reuse the property—or portion of the property—is unknown or unclear (prior to its actual redevelopment). These unknown conditions raise questions of cost, legal liability and sometimes technical feasibility. These brownfield questions can stand in the way of the property's sale or redevelopment, which often reduces its perceived value and requires investigation and assessment. Without a buyer, many properties become trapped in “brownfield limbo” and sit idle for years or decades. Brownfields may not be contaminated in reality, but suspicion can create stigma that spoils the market for that property and impairs its potential. This “brownfield stigma” can also stretch over properties neighboring or nearby a brownfield property, because it too is perceived to be impacted by migrating contamination. As a property purchaser, even if you do not believe a property is contaminated, or that is was ever developed previously, the “brownfield ABC rule” holds you should always assess a property before closing to be sure.  Failing to do so could forfeit important legal protections and put you on the hook for damaged created prior to your ownership, such as the bona fide purchaser defense. Examples of Brownfields can include former industrial sites, obsolete office buildings, gas stations, dry cleaners, fuel and chemical depots and any other property that used or contained hazardous materials or petroleum.

Specific definitions of Brownfield vary across jurisdictions both in the United States and around the world. The U.S. Congress has defined a brownfield in the "Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act," to mean (with certain exceptions and exclusions) "real properties, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant."

The state of New York draws a narrower definition that requires actual contamination. “A brownfield site is any real property where a contaminant is present at levels exceeding the soil cleanup objectives or other health-based or environmental standards, criteria or guidance adopted by DEC that are applicable based on the reasonably anticipated use of the property, in accordance with applicable regulations.”

By contrast, the state of Michigan draws a very wide definition “to create brownfield redevelopment zones; to promote the revitalization, redevelopment, and reuse of certain property, including, but not limited to, tax reverted, blighted, or functionally obsolete property.” As such, no potential contamination is required to qualify for brownfield programs and incentives in Michigan—which allows an even larger number of properties to receive assistance in their redevelopment.

The difference in the two approaches is primarily financial. States with less flexible brownfield policy—such as New York, which requires proof of actual contamination—limits the costs of the state. Michigan, on the other hand, can grant low interest loans, grants or other incentives to a larger class of property that is not contaminated—which may come at greater cost. In such jurisdictions, there can be a financial incentive to seek the brownfield label.

Another, simple definition for brownfield is: any property designated as a brownfield by a relevant jurisdictional authority, receiving brownfield funding or financial incentives, or participating in a brownfield program. In the Brownfield Listings Marketplace, the New York approach and the nine exclusions to Congress’ brownfield definition can be labelled as Redfields—affirmatively contaminated and requiring remediation. Whereas properties that might be called Brownfields in Michigan, but are merely functionality obsolete and not potentially contaminated can be labelled Greyfields.

Use the Brownfield tag on every Basic Listing for free. Find more definitions in the Brownfield Listings Terminology and discover all the tags you can use to best describe the conditions on your property—or tag as experience on your Profile—in the BL Taxonomy. See how to tag your property or project as a Brownfield by learning How to List or how to Get Started.

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