To spur cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated industrial properties, the Ehrlich administration is drafting legislation that would enhance Maryland's voluntary brownfields program.
The proposal would significantly increase application fees charged to developers and would enable the state to impose harsher penalties on property owners who fail to follow through on cleanup orders.
To win developers' support, state officials want to speed the process of review and approval by the Maryland Department of the Environment - enabling projects to move forward more quickly.
"We wanted to make this program as attractive and user-friendly as possible," said Lynn Y. Buhl, a Department of Planning official, at a recent meeting. "We are trying to put something in this bill that everyone on this work group has advocated for."
Neither environmental advocates nor industry lobbyists are satisfied with everything expected to be in the bill. Representatives of both groups say they're waiting to see the exact wording of the proposal.
"Based on the list of what we've heard so far, it isn't too bad," said Terry Harris, president of the Baltimore-based Cleanup Coalition, a nonprofit organization that works on pollution issues. "The devil will be in the language details. There are a couple things we're not going to like at all, and it depends on how the bill is written."
Michael Powell, a lobbyist for developers, manufacturers and business groups, said the Ehrlich administration seems to be tailoring its proposal more toward the interests of environmental groups.
"The conceptual proposal that we've heard so far is far more environmentally friendly than we expected," Powell said. "We really expected something that would be really business-friendly. I think they have gone to great lengths to make it something the environmentalists will like."
The state's brownfields program is designed to clean up properties contaminated by industrial waste or pollution, making them safe for new users. Developers often consider such sites prime locations because they're frequently near highways, railroad tracks or ports.
Some of the area's most successful brownfields redevelopment sites include the former Montgomery Ward site in Southwest Baltimore and American Can Co. in Canton. Officials say there are hundreds of such sites across the state, and they want to make out-of-the-way locations more attractive.
In November, the Ehrlich administration announced changes the Department of the Environment would make to simplify the brownfields process for developers. The changes include hiring a program coordinator, reducing the length of the application and combining all information in one location on the Internet.
Administration officials drafting the bill have spent months meeting with a work group of legislators and advocates from the environmental and business communities.
Jonas A. Jacobson, director of waste management for the Department of the Environment, said the administration bill is still being drafted and probably won't be introduced in the General Assembly until late January or early February.
But at the work group's final meeting last month, Jacobson and Buhl laid out much of what they expect the bill to cover, including:
Increasing application fees charged to developers from $6,000 per project to $7,500, and adding a $2,000 "premier" surcharge for developers who need their applications reviewed in five business days or less. Less-affluent groups such as nonprofit organizations would be able to apply for a fee waiver.
Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat and member of the work group, said the fee increase could raise about $600,000 a year. Jacobson said the money would likely eliminate the need for the program's $214,000 annual general fund subsidy.
Reducing the Department of the Environment's review period for brownfields applications from 60 days to 45 days, and the time to approve cleanup plans from 120 days to 75 days. Jacobson said the higher fees would enable the agency to hire enough staff to meet the shorter deadlines.
Requiring public meetings in advance of all brownfields projects to ensure that communities know about potential cleanups. Currently, public meetings are optional if requested by the community, Jacobson said.
Allowing the state to seek treble damages against property owners who refuse to follow through on cleanup orders. The state is now limited to recovering the cost of cleanup. "This would be a tremendous tool for the department in pursuing enforcement against polluters," Jacobson said.
Allowing businesses to redevelop parts of polluted properties, but not complete sites, if the contaminated areas do not pose a risk to human health. The process is known as "focused site cleanups."
Allowing brownfields sites that are under active enforcement orders into the program.
"We don't want to let the responsible person, the polluter, participate in the program, but we don't want the properties staying vacant and contributing to urban blight," Jacobson said. "So, we want to let another developer come in, clean it up and reuse it, rather than the site being vacant and waiting for the consent cleanup order to kick in."
Jacobson said a financial bond would have to be posted for those sites, to ensure that the state had the money to finish cleanups if developers walked away.
Allowing properties contaminated with oil into the brownfields program. Developers of such sites now must go through another program, so properties contaminated with oil and other pollutants need two separate approvals. "We believe oil should be treated like any other controlled hazardous substance, with one program managing all of the sites," Jacobson said.
The Ehrlich administration does not expect to request significant changes in liability provisions of the current brownfields law, Jacobson said.
"The current liability scheme is fundamentally sound" in protecting both developers and area communities, he said.
Environmental activists say their biggest concern is the Ehrlich administration's proposal for focused-site cleanups. Harris said that might allow developers to "cherry-pick on sites, rather than cleaning up the problem areas."
Some environmental advocates also had hoped for more funding.
Powell said some in the business community remain concerned about the large increase in potential fines for violators.
"We want to work this out," Powell said. "We're hopeful that, if we do this right, it will open a lot of the less-valuable sites to cleanup and redevelopment because it will be more attractive for developers to get involved."