NYSDEC Proposes Revised Brownfield “Underutilized” Definition

The NYSDEC’s much awaited revised definition of underutilized that was required as part of the 2015 Brownfield Cleanup Program (BCP) reforms will be published in the March 9, 2016 New York State Register (NYR). The proposed definition is currently available on the NYSDEC website

As previously  discussed, the 2015 BCP amendments replaced the ‘as of right” tangible property tax credit (TPC) for New York City brownfield sites. Instead, new applicants would qualify for the TPC if they satisfied one of four the four tests or “gates: At least half of the site is located within an Environmental Zone; The site was “upside down”, the site will be used for affordable housing or the site is underutilized. NYSDEC was required to publish a definition of “underutilized” by July 1st and to adopt the rule by October 1st. The agency met the first deadline when it published the definition in the June 10, 2015 issue of the NYR.

The proposed “underutilized” definition was widely criticized as being too narrow and essentially reading out the term from the statute. As a result, NYSDEC withdrew the definition and missed the statutory deadline to adopt the definition by October 1st.

Despite the adverse comments, the NYSDEC declined to make significant changes to the definition of underutilized despite a plethora of adverse comments. The reason cited by NYSDEC was that only three actual examples were provided for DEC’s evaluation and agency concluded those sites would be eligible under one of the other TPC gates. The agency dismissed other “broad statements” about the effect of the proposed rule on small property owners as unpersuasive. Click here for our blog post on this issue

The revised proposed definition of underutilized provides that at the time of the application no more than 50% of the permissible floor area of the building or buildings is certified by the applicant to have been used under the applicable base zoning for at least three years prior to the application and one of following tests are satisfied.

  1. the proposed use is at least 75%  for industrial uses; or
  2. The following conditions exist

(i) the proposed use is at least seventy-five percent for commercial or commercial and industrial uses;

(ii) the proposed development could not take place without substantial government assistance, as certified by the municipality, AND

(iii) one or more of the following conditions exist:

(a). taxes are in arrears for the five years preceding the application; or

(b) a building is condemned, or exhibits structural deficiencies as certified by a professional engineer that present a public health or safety hazard; or

(c) there are no structures on the site.

Note is is unclear if 2 (i) through (iii) are all required since there was no “and” following 2(i).

It appears there is a fundamental disagreement between the NYSDEC and the real estate community as to what constitutes an underutilized property.  As it stated in its responsiveness summary, the agency believes that “ If the majority of a site is in productive use as stated in the comment, it should not be considered underutilized even if there may be some contamination present.” This view would seem to undermine the intent of rezoning and prevent properties that are by all reasonable measures obsolete from qualifying for BCP tax credits because they have tenants generating some income. Under this interpretation, an abandoned gas station with a tenant selling flowers or that is being used for parking would prevent the site being considered “underutilized”. A small, obsolete shopping center impacted by a former dry cleaner would not meet the proposed “underutilized” definition if it is more than 50% leased.

The proposed “underutilized” appears to favor industrial sites which is somewhat incongruous that this term applies to New York City sites. A mixed-use project that has more 25% residential would not satisfy for criterion 2(ii) and not qualify for the tangible property tax credit if  2(i) through 2(iii) are required to be met  to qualify for the tangible property tax credit. Unless a site with a proposed mixed-use project with market-rate residential units falls is located in an Environmental Zone or is “upside down” as defined by the statute, the project would not qualify for the tangible property credit component.

In our view, NYSDEC has arbitrarily dismissed adverse comments that the restrictive definition would exclude large swaths of small commercial properties in the middle class neighborhoods located outer boroughs of New York City from the BCP tax credits that were not the high value” sites that the legislature was targeting and would have a devastating impact on owners and developers of small contaminated properties such as dry cleaners, gas stations, and vehicle repair and maintenance shops. The agency simply disagreed with these comments and assumed these properties could qualify for the “upside-down” test  without any meaningful analysis.

DEC’s response to the comments is available here