Brownfield status for Brooksville project means money for developers, frustration for Commission

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BROOKSVILLE — Promotional materials on the website of developer Housing Trust Group show drawings depicting a completed 104-unit garden-style apartment complex with an inviting swimming pool.

The development will include "a stand-alone clubhouse with exceptional amenities including a fully equipped fitness center, open-concept gathering room, kid’s playtime room, computer lab, and media/gaming station. The landscaped grounds provide a playground and resort-style pool with a pergola and barbecue station for all residents,’’ according to the article on the Hammock Ridge I complex.

The apartments, which have been under construction on Omaha Circle in Spring Hill for several months, with plans for an opening soon, seem like any other multifamily development built in recent years.

But there is a difference, and it is one that has caused the County Commission some angst.

The developer wants the county to designate the site a "Brownfield" — a property on which development "may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant,’’ according to the definition by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Only the developer’s representative has told the commission there is no contamination on the site. Months ago, before the Housing Trust Group broke ground and began to build, photos were taken of trash piled up nearby. But there was no testing for contaminants to find out what might lie beneath the site before construction began.

The designation of a "Brownfield site" brings with it a monetary reward in the form of tax incentives. In this case, sales tax incentives which could total $456,000 for the $19 million project.

The actual designation takes two public hearings. At the first hearing several months ago, commissioners balked and tried to keep the second hearing from happening. But commissioners were convinced by their attorney to schedule the second hearing for the end of October.

But even after that presentation, which included what the county attorney called a threat of a lawsuit "in a very humble manner" by the developer’s attorney, the commission still balked. Now the decision is slated for Tuesday.

At the October hearing, Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes told the developer’s attorney, Michael Goldstein, that, while the property met the requirements of the law for designation, "we haven’t gotten any results, borings, to show that it (contamination) is there.’’

Dukes asked, "what’s to stop any developer from now on doing the same thing ... if you don’t have to produce evidence?’’

Goldstein said while there was evidence the land could have been contaminated, the federal government and the states have all adopted rules for Brownfield sites which require only the perception of contamination.

This shows that the Legislature acknowledges that "it’s not just actual contamination which causes dysfunction in the marketplace but ... perceived contamination which is sometimes just a hint, the fear that actual contamination will exist,’’ Goldstein said.

That can cause a developer or a government or an individual to back away from a development opportunity because the potential high cost of dealing with real contamination, Goldstein said.

None of the five criteria required by the law for Brownfield designation relate to environmental requirements. They include the developer proving he owns the site and his agreement to rehabilitate and develop it, that the redevelopment would make the site economically productive, that it follows local land use rules, that the hearings were public noticed and that the developer has the financial means to build the project.

Goldstein said Hammock Ridge I meets those standards and the county staff agrees. He also argued that the wording of the state law makes the county’s approval mandatory once those standards are met. That didn’t sit well with commissioners.

"No doubt you’re well within your bounds, Michael, but wow,’’ Dukes said.

Commissioner John Allocco, who spoke to the Legislative Delegation several days earlier asking for a change in the mandatory nature of the law, wanted a delay until changes could be made to the law during next year’s legislative session. But county attorney Garth Coller said that would not be appropriate.

"There is no rehabilitation plan filed with the county, none at all. He has admitted there is no actual contamination. He hasn’t found any. I don’t think he even looked for any, but that’s my opinion,’’ said Commissioner Nick Nicholson.

"They just want this designation so they can get the money,’’ Nicholson said. "I’m not in favor of this at all ... I’m not going to vote for this.’’

Dukes warned his fellow commissioners that balking on approval might be costly and that the county has been sued and lost before over issues they were not personally in favor of approving. But when he called for a vote on the designation, no commissioner would make a motion to approve it.

Finally, Commissioner Steve Champion made a motion to continue the discussion until Tuesday so that commissioners could talk with their attorney and further examine the evidence provided by the developer. The commission agreed to the delay.

County staff also informed commissioners that a second application for a Brownfield designation by the same developer is pending for Hammock Ridge II, awaiting their decision on the first site.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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