'Brownfield' agreements could mean sizeable tax breaks for Charlotte developers

- As you drive around Charlotte, and the surrounding neighborhoods, you see buildings are going up in the blink of an eye. Much of the construction, however, is on contaminated land, and investors are bustling to build on the so-called brownfields.

FOX 46 Charlotte went on a tour around the Queen City with Bruce Nicholson, North Carolina Brownfields Program Manager.

“The very first brownfield agreement [in North Carolina] was actually in Charlotte,” he said.

So, what is a brownfield agreement? 

“It's about contaminated property being recycled into reusable property,” Nicholson explained.

Contaminated property; and there’s a lot of land in Mecklenburg County (and North Carolina) that falls into that category. It could be an old textile mill, an abandoned laundromat or even a former gas station.

Camden Square in South End kicked off the state’s brownfields program.

“We have Camden Street, which is right next to Price’s Chicken Coop,” said Carolyn Minnich, a brownfields program project manager. “That was a brownfield site next to it.

When a property is approved for the program, developers will cap the contaminants, or excavate the contaminated soil entirely; like the ascent in Uptown Charlotte.

“In this one,” said Nicholson as he pointed to the Ascent, “a large part of it was excavated, because they needed to go down and make a parking garage beneath the building.”

The owner gets a five-year sizable tax break in return for building on the, otherwise undesirable, property.

“Those percentages start at 90 percent exclusion in the first year, and go down to 10% in year five,” Nicholson explained, “so essentially what we're talking about is somebody paying about 55% of their normal property tax for those first five years.”

For example, 1600 Camden Road is a brownfield site. In year one, the owner paid taxes on 10 percent of the building's value. That amounted to $7,555 in savings. In year two, the owner saved $6,389. Year three, the owner paid 50% of the building’s value resulting in $4,259 in savings. After five years of tiered tax breaks, the owner of 1600 Camden Road saved $21,612.

This isn’t a cleanup program. Brownfield program managers work with developers to make sure the contaminants are contained. Not all are on board with it.

“It should not be a place to where you live and breathe and your children go play and dig in the dirt,” said Kristian Rhyne from Belmont.

He lives near a brownfield site, and says he’s wary of it; so are his neighbors.

“Dilution is the solution.” Said James Calloway. “They mixed this dirt up. They dug it up, they scattered it around, they brought it over here, take it over there, mix it up again.”

Nicholson says that’s one of the misconceptions about their program; that they’re not suppressing the toxins properly. He says every brownfields property has to follow a program that’s tracked by a supervisor to ensure it’s safe.

The program has had a significant impact on redevelopment in Mecklenburg County.

“We have done nearly 500 now;” Nicholson said. “We'll do our 500th this year, and it represents over $15 billion in private investment in brownfields that would not have otherwise taken place.”

As cranes continue to crowd hot real estate markets, the owners are saving thousands of dollars, if not more, on tax incentives

“If you're buying on a brownfield, there's an addendum that has to go along with your offer to purchase,” said My Townhome broker, Jenna Calhoun.

She says it’s all still about location.

“Everyone wants to be close to the city, but not in the city,” she said, “and so the prices don't really alter whether it's built on a brownfield or not.”

FOX 46 investigator Morgan Frances took a ride on the light rail through South End with Carolyn Minnich, the Mecklenburg County Brownfields Project Manager. Some would say the area is unrecognizable from what it was ten years ago.

“It went from the old warehouses, because this was the rail. Stuff could come in and out,” she explained. “Now, it's a new use, and we're bringing in people and businesses.”

When asked if she thought South End would have developed as quickly as it has had it not been for the program, Minnich said, “No. Charlotte invested, and had one of the first EPA assessment grants. They targeted South End, and they said, 'we want to revitalize development here.'”

Brownfields project managers say the program is a win-win for nearly everyone; except, perhaps, renters, who don’t get the trickle down discount from the five years of tax breaks the building owners would get.

“Most of South End is built on redeveloped brownfields,” Calhoun said, “so all the rents are pretty much the same, because it's a hot market for renters, as well, so they're willing to pay whatever just to be in the area.”

There are currently 40 active brownfield projects in Mecklenburg County, including the new 31-story South Graham Tower that’s set to reshape Uptown Charlotte’s skyline.

The program is only available to people, or companies, that did not cause the contamination to begin with. To see if you’re living on a brownfield site, click here. 

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