A bill sponsored by Delegate Tiffany Lawrence and me correcting a serious problem in our brownfield law passed the House of Delegates last week.
You may recall a controversy that arose this past summer over a proposed Brownfield Development project here in Jefferson County. A group of developers applied for such a designation for a property known as the Old Standard Quarry. That property is zoned green space, so commercial development (the required purpose of a brownfield development project) could not be done at that location. Or so we thought.
Lo and behold we discovered that a rule had been slipped into state law that requires the West Virginia Development Office to approve a brownfield development project application if it otherwise meets the criteria for such a designation, even if that project does not conform to local zoning.
The law creating the Brownfield Development Project program was passed three years ago. The bill to do so was sponsored by Senators Mike Oliverio (no longer in the Legislature) and John Unger. I strongly supported it in the House of Delegates.
A "brownfield" is defined in law as an abandoned industrial site that is to some degree polluted. The idea behind the brownfield development program is to encourage developers to clean up polluted sites rather than to convert green space into new development. I think this idea is good for both the economy and the environment.
As I read the bill three years ago, I thought it exempted a brownfield development project from local planning laws after the application was approved, but required them to conform to local zoning before the application was submitted. I still think the original bill says that.
However, when the rules were written to apply the law that was changed.
Neither I nor anybody else I know caught the change. That change did not become apparent until the Old Standard application was approved despite its lack of conformance with local zoning. The bill sponsored by Delegate Lawrence and me corrects the problem. This bill specifies that brownfield development projects are not exempt from local zoning laws but are exempt from other local planning laws. The bill now goes to the Senate.
Our bill affects any future application for a brownfield development project but is not retroactive. So even if the Senate passes our bill it would not affect Old Standard. We'll still have to deal with that.
Even many people who want the Old Standard property developed have told me the decision should not have been made in Charleston. I would like to figure out a way to get us back to square one on Old Standard, so the decision can be a local one.
I believe a majority of people in our district opposes the development of the Old Standard property. The Old Standard site is engulfed on three sides by the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The Park wants to include the property within its boundaries because part of the Battle of Harpers Ferry took place there in 1862. Opponents of the Old Standard brownfield development project argue (I think justifiably) that expansion of the Park has the potential to create more jobs than the proposed development would create.
The state has seized the property for unpaid taxes. The owners have about a year to get their tax problems corrected. If they do, they'll get the property back. If they don't the state will own the property. Stay tuned.