Brownfields law changes address concerns

New brownfields legislation included in Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s budget proposal has major changes from
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New brownfields legislation included in Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s budget proposal has major changes from his proposal last year, which had been opposed by Schenectady County leaders.

“A lot of our concerns were addressed,” Ray Gillen, chairman of the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority, said of the new legislation. He and county Legislature Chairwoman Susan Savage, D-Niskayuna, had lobbied the Spitzer administration on the issue.

Spitzer is trying to reduce the tax-credit payout to developers who have modest cleanup costs. The administration claims that some downstate developers have been getting tax credits for up to 22 percent of development costs on projects that would have been built anyway, without such lavish incentives. Last year’s bill would have changed the 2003 brownfields reform law by capping development credits at $5 million. Critics, including Gillen and Savage, said that could reduce incentives to develop projects at sites such as the former Alco plant between Erie Boulevard and the Mohawk River in Schenectady.

Spitzer is now proposing two separate bills. The simpler one would set the redevelopment tax credit cap at $10 million. A more comprehensive reform measure would include a higher cap of $15 million and increase cleanup credits. Gillen said the Alco redevelopment is conservatively estimated at $50 million, and the highest percentage it can realistically qualify for is 20. Since 20 percent of $50 million is $10 million, the new Spitzer proposals would likely have minimal impact on limiting incentives for the Alco project or others of similar or smaller cost.

Another less expensive Schenectady brownfield project at the former Big N Plaza on Nott Street is further along and is grandfathered under the existing rules, Gillen said. It will not be adversely affected by any changes.

According to a Budget Division briefing book, “This program has proven to be unsustainable in its current form. Millions of dollars of state tax benefits have gone to private developers for projects that would have been undertaken without state incentives, and in many cases, millions of dollars in development tax credits are provided to projects with minimal remediation expenses, counter to the intent of this program.”

However, community leaders in Schenectady and other upstate cities have said they need big incentives to promote redevelopment of abandoned or underused old industrial sites, which are usually polluted at least to some extent. Otherwise, urban leaders say, those sites are at a competitive disadvantage compared to suburban and rural “greenfields,” which are much cheaper to develop.

Gillen said he is still reviewing the governor’s proposal. So were staff members for the Senate and Assembly environmental conservation committees, who declined to comment on it.

The Senate on Wednesday passed a brownfields bill as part of its Upstate Now legislation. It passed a similar bill last year.

According to a memo from bill sponsor Sen. Carl Marcellino, R-Syosset, chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee, the bill “clarifies that brownfield sites with historic fill are eligible for the program. The Senate bill moves the Brownfield Opportunity Area program from under [the Department of Environmental Conservation] to oversight by the Department of State.”

A Budget Division employee said the governor’s legislation moves some distance toward the Senate on the “historic fill” issue, but no documentation for that was available Wednesday.

The Spitzer bills do not tackle the jurisdictional issue for the BOA program. The current joint management of the BOA program is widely seen as causing unnecessary delay, and at a joint Senate-Assembly hearing last year, there was a consensus that the program should be moved to the Department of State. However, Gillen said the BOA status “is not a big issue with us.”

Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, D-Lindenhurst, chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee, supports the BOA move, his counsel, Stephen Liss, confirmed. However, there is no Assembly brownfields reform bill at this time.

The Senate bill does not address the tax-credit issue, and Marcellino has said he is concerned about retaining incentives for redevelopment.

Environmental Advocates of New York endorsed the governor’s proposals.

Judith Enck, Spitzer’s top environmental aide, who developed last year’s program bill, could not be reached for comment. DEC spokesman Yancey Roy referred questions to the Budget Division.

Categories: Schenectady County

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