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Brownfields: A Calculated Risk Missed by Tribes and South Dakota

Posted on: December 2nd, 2016
by David Ganje

The EPA defines a brownfield as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) mandated that the purchasers of property are liable for any contamination on this property regardless of when they acquired a site. However, CERCLA also created a defense known as the “innocent landowner defense” that can only be used if “appropriate due diligence” was conducted prior to the acquisition of the property. Appropriate due diligence has been exercised if an environmental site assessment (ESA), a thorough investigation of a site’s current and previous owners, has been prepared.

ESA’s have an average cost of about $4,000 for a small business acquisition and can vary depending on variety of factors specific to the job. The typical businesses that leave behind brownfields include gas stations, dry cleaners, railroads, oil refineries, liquid / chemical storage facilities, and steel / heavy manufacturing plants. Typical hazardous materials they leave behind include hydrocarbons, solvents, pesticides, heavy metals such as lead, and asbestos.

What is so dangerous about leaving these brownfields alone? Many of these brownfields are abandoned commercial properties and tend to be an eyesore in the community. Not only can this lead to decreased property values in surrounding neighborhoods, but the property can also pose serious health risks for new tenants and their neighbors.

Once a brownfield has been identified, the EPA provides two options for cleanup, revolving loan fund grants and cleanup grants. The purpose of revolving loan fund grants is to enable states, political subdivisions, and Native American tribes to make low interest loans to carryout cleanup activities at brownfields properties. Cleanup grants provide funding for a grant recipient to carry out cleanup activities at brownfields sites.

Since the cost of cleanup is considerable, the grants may provide several hundred thousand dollars towards the cost of cleanup. This money comes with strings attached, of course. Among other things, the costs are shared with the property owner, by at least 20 percent, and the brownfield site must be cleaned up within a three-year period.

Entities eligible for the EPA’s brownfield grants and loans include state, local and tribal governments; general purpose units of local government, land clearance authorities or other quasi-governmental entities; regional council or redevelopment agencies; states or legislatures; or nonprofit organizations. If you are not an eligible entity, you may still be able to receive assistance through your state or city.

In South Dakota, the agency that provides statewide brownfield assistance is the Department of Environment & Natural Resources (DENR). DENR receives funding from the EPA for assessments and cleanup and have discretion in how to allocate those funds. For example, a national hotel chain looking to redevelop a brownfield site in South Dakota would not be eligible to apply for assistance through the EPA directly. However, the hotel chain could contact DENR for assistance and DENR could use their funds to perform an ESA or help with the cleanup.

In 2015, Sioux Falls received an assessment grant for $400,000 from the EPA. In addition to performing site assessments, they plan to use the money to update the city’s brownfields site inventory, prioritize sites, plan for cleanups at priority sites, and perform community outreach activities. They, like DENR, also have discretion in performing assessments and have made assessments available to entities who would not be eligible to apply for grants from the EPA.

With these options available to assist with brownfield redevelopment, why do so many brownfields remain untouched in South Dakota? In the last 5 years the EPA only awarded four grants in South Dakota. They gave an assessment grant to Sioux Falls and cleanup grants to Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. This suggests that other entities are not aware of the grants available to them, they are dissuaded from applying, or they do not have the structure to run a brownfields program.

Since South Dakota is not small Rhode Island, which is about the size of Brown County, businesses and other eligible entities find it is more economical to buy available land than it is to redevelop a brownfield site. This misses the mark. A brownfield site is many times in an attractive location. A brownfield site is often close to business activity and transportation or the prior owner would not have developed it.

Although the grants and other forms of assistance are “competitive,” grants are awarded based on guidelines. The deadlines for applying for assessment and cleanup grants from the EPA is December 20, 2016, so it’s not too late.

View the original article at FarmForum.net

You Get The Water With The Land – Sort Of

Posted on: October 28th, 2016
by David Ganje

Gaze over your shoreline property knowing that you can access the waters directly in front of you. Unfortunately, under New York law, depending on the shape of the shoreline and how lot boundaries are drawn, this may not be the case. New York courts use different principles and their own discretion in determining the reach of landowners’ riparian rights.

In Muraca v. Meyerowitz, 13 Misc. 3d 348, 350 (Sup. Ct. 2006), three adjacent riparian landowners disputed each others riparian water rights boundaries primarily because one of the party’s private boat occupied a large portion of surface waters near the shore.

Under New York law, riparian rights only arise from the ownership of land abutting or surrounding a body of water, such as a lake or a pond as long as there is contact between water and the land.  In Muraca, the Court recognized that riparian landowner rights extend out to the navigable portion of the water body, but go no further. A riparian owner has the right to access water and the related right to protect the water from illegal drawing of the water as well as the right to build out to the water by way of a dock, slip or pier.

When a controversy concerning riparian rights arises, the resolution sought is access to water from shoreline properties. How to determine the rights of access between riparian landowners is complex.

In New York there are no mechanical rules used to draw the lateral boundaries between riparian landowners. Rather, courts strive to give an equitable allocation of the waterfront area, with the right of access depending on the frontage available to the landowner based on the lateral boundaries of their properties.
The Muraca court explains that two principal formulas have been derived for establishing lateral boundaries in the context of landowner’s riparian rights.
First, the “perpendicular rule” extends the lateral onshore boundaries out to the navigable body of water by lines that are perpendicular to the shoreline. This principle is equitable when there are only minor shoreline irregularities (i.e. a straight onshore boundary).

Second, the “proportional method” attempts to draw a path between onshore boundaries that are proportionate to the amount of frontage the landowners enjoys. When choosing a method or modifying a rule, a court will consider a landowner’s right to direct access to navigable waters along with their neighbor’s right of direct access.

So it is not just one’s right of access to navigable waters that matter when resolving such controversies, but rather what in fact matters are one’s riparian rights in relation to one’s neighbors.

There are limits attached to these general principals. A riparian owner must remember that he is always subject to the restrictions to which he agreed when he purchased the property. Outside of these contractual or deed restrictions, riparian landowners cannot extend their “upland boundaries”, or the boundary above the mean high tide line, to form the lateral boundaries of the land under the water. This limit however is not all encompassing. New York courts have recognized that a riparian owner’s right to the natural flow of water along its land is properly classified as real property, equally with the land. A party could nevertheless acquire an interest in the water flow separate and distinct from the land under the water.

In Muraca the Court found the proportionate rule inapplicable and modified the perpendicular rule because strictly applying the perpendicular rule would have unfairly reduced the defendants’ right to access their outshore surface waters.

Ironically, even though the boat owner was given more riparian rights to access the outshore waters in front of his property than the complaining plaintiff requested, the Court found the party’s ability to dock his 28 foot boat to be of little consequence. The riparian rights boundaries only have to be sufficient enough to accommodate reasonably sized watercraft.

The implications of a court determining the riparian boundary lines based on general principles of equity is memorable.
First, it suggests that a court can alter your deed if you eventually find yourself in litigation over the riparian rights of yourself and other riparian landowners.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, under New York law, when riparian real property increased by “accretion”, or the gradual addition of property along a shoreline, then new formed land belongs to the upland landowner. However, if the riparian boundary lines are altered as the court did in Muraca, then the new lands normally entitled to riparian landowner will go to their neighbor.

David Ganje practices law in the area of natural resources, environmental and commercial law. 

Brownfield Due Diligence – Don’t Get Married, Get Engaged

Posted on: October 22nd, 2016
by David Ganje

Let’s not pretend.  We have messed up parts of mother earth.  Now let’s use the tools at hand to undo the mess and be good stewards again.  Brownfield recycling, that is the brownfields program is one means to that end. If you are looking to start a new redevelopment project don’t get married, get engaged. Do your due diligence and explore the possibilities from exposing a brownfield.

The EPA defines a brownfield as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant”. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) mandated that the purchasers of property are liable for any contamination on this property regardless of when they acquired a site. However, CERCLA also created a defense known as the “innocent landowner defense” that can only be used if “appropriate due diligence” was conducted prior to the acquisition of the property. Appropriate due diligence has been exercised if an environmental site assessment (ESA), a thorough investigation of a sites current and previous owners, has been prepared.

ESA’s have an average cost of about $4,000 for a small business acquisition and can vary depending on variety of factors specific to the job. The typical businesses that leave behind brownfields include gas stations, dry cleaners, railroads, oil refineries, liquid / chemical storage facilities, and steel / heavy manufacturing plants. Typical hazardous materials they leave behind include hydrocarbons, solvents, pesticides, heavy metals such as lead, and asbestos. Much of the information about previous and past owners is public.

What is so dangerous about leaving these brownfields alone? Many of these brownfields are abandon commercial properties and tend to be an eyesore in the community. Not only can this lead to decreased property values in surrounding neighborhoods but the property can also pose serious health risks for new tenant and their neighbors. For example, the Love Canal disaster in Niagara Falls, in the late 70’s. Hooker Chemical Co. dumped over 20,000 tons of chemical waste in the unfinished and abandoned Love Canal. The canal was later paved over and sold to the city. The city then developed residential neighborhoods and schools on top of the contaminated land. About 25 years later, after an unusual amount of rain, a large amount water absorbed by the land upwelled the “entombed” chemical waste. Residents complained of chemical burns, organ failures, mental disabilities, and congenital birth defects. Eventually local families were relocated and the land was cleaned up. However, in recent years, residents on the rebuilt lands have complained of health issues similar to the ones originally reported 35 years earlier and have filed lawsuits against Hooker Chemical Co.’s parent company.

Once you suspect that the land you are planning to purchase could be a brownfield in need of cleanup what can you do? If you have not purchased the land yet you could include provisions in the purchase agreement that can indemnify you from liability for claims associated with existing contamination.

If you have done your due diligence and you know what you are getting into then you should already know that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set up the Brownfield Cleanup Program (BCP) “to encourage private-sector cleanups of brownfields and to promote their redevelopment as a means to revitalize economically blighted communities.” The BCP provides incentives through, grants, loans, training, and tax benefits to aid with the cleanup. Since the cost of cleanup is considerable the BCP may provide several hundred thousand dollars towards the cost of cleanup. This money comes with strings attached of course. Among other things, the costs are shared with the property owner, up to 20%, and the brownfield site must be cleaned up within a three-year period. In addition to tax incentives and financial assistance provided through the various governmental programs the land developer should be comforted by the fact that his contributions have also helped the environment. Furthermore, awards are given out by the NYC Brownfield Partnership providing public recognition for the most successful brownfield redevelopment projects.

Additionally, taking on a new brownfield project in NYC grants access to special municipal assistance programs through the NYC Office of Environmental Remediation (OER). The OER was established in 2009 to “design, build, and operate a set of world class municipal programs to advance cleanup and redevelopment of brownfield sites.” Since then they have developed over thirty new programs that take some of the most blighted properties in some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, cleans them up, makes them safer, and enables new development that brings new jobs and affordable housing.

The OER also distributes a variety of letters to aid sellers, lenders, and prospective buyers of brownfield properties. An “environmental review and assessment letter” is issued after the OER conducts an ESA on the property in question. It is used to provide assurances against liability. A “standstill letter” contains a preapproved remedy plan developed by a seller and the OER. The letter can be used to enroll the property in a brownfield cleanup program so that a prospective purchaser might receive financial assistance. This letter is intended to provide comfort to a prospective purchaser and its lender since the purchaser will be able to better estimate the cleanup costs.

If you have already started a construction on a new project and just learned of contamination, you may still be able to request a “look back letter” from the OER which would grant liability protection. Although a developer can gain liability protection after a project has started, they will not be eligible for brownfield funding incentives.

Many prime redevelopment sites are located on brownfields, don’t get married. Get engaged first and do your due diligence.

David Ganje practices law in the area of natural resources, environmental and commercial law.

Free Land – South Dakota Style

Posted on: October 22nd, 2016
by David Ganje

Water and land do not mix well in South Dakota. In the last few days South Dakota gave up on its disputed claim to a 500 acre three-mile-long island known as Goat Island located in the Missouri River.  The state conceded jurisdiction over the claimed island giving control to the federal government. The lack of media coverage analyzing the pros and cons of this recent withdrawal of South Dakota’s disputed Goat Island land claim is disappointing. The state had argued that Goat Island was on the South Dakota side of the river when Lewis and Clark mapped the river in 1804. This is a public matter involving a state claim to land on the Missouri River. What were the reasons for the settlement of the claim? How is it good for South Dakota? The media did not ask. The government press releases did not say. Now the island is in the hands of the feds. The hand of government did this deal, but we know not the reasons for the decision.

Property boundaries matter when your land is next to a river or a body of water.  If the river deposits land onto your riverfront by “accretion”, then who owns it?   Accretion is the gradual increase to land, notably riparian land, stemming from the movement of water.  A meandering river has no master.  Certainly man-made law has not corralled a meandering river with anything close to perfection, or to some landowners, with any degree of satisfaction. Questions come up when riverfront boundaries naturally shift due to erosion or accretion.

South Dakota has enacted several laws regarding accretion rights.  The first important section states that when land forms from natural causes gradually over time next to a stream or river such land belongs to the owner of the bank, and it does not matter whether the water is navigable or not.  The second concerns avulsion, or the violent or sudden carrying away of land by a river or stream to another part of the river or opposite bank. Under the statute the owner of the original land may reclaim the land within one year of the new owner taking possession.  And the US Supreme Court has gotten into the act by ruling in the 1970s that the doctrine of accretion applies to changes in the river caused by both artificial as well as natural causes.

One lesson to learn from old man river is:  Don’t use fuzzy boundaries for the legal description in your deeds and contracts.  That is, do not let your lawyer describe the boundaries of your land by reference to a body of water. 

It must be wonderful to be the state.  South Dakota can give land away, and it can receive control of newly formed lakes for free. In a recent law case involving a dispute over the ownership of three newly-formed lakes in the state, the state Supreme Court ruled that effective ownership of these three newly formed lakes, all on privately owned land, should be held in the name of the state.  The Parks case ruling stated the lakebeds would continue to be owned by the private landowners but the lakes and water of the lakes are to be controlled by the state for the benefit of the people of the state.  The result:  more than two thousand surface acres of land, now in the form of lakes, would be controlled and supervised by the state and not the landowners.  Surprisingly, no mention of compensation to the landowners was made for this taking. The state taketh and the state giveth away. It is wonderful to be the state.

David Ganje practices law in the area of natural resources, environmental and commercial law.

Free Land — If You Can Keep It

Posted on: October 12th, 2016
by David Ganje

Free Land – If You Can Keep It

It seems everyone is looking for newfound money whether in the form of land or the lottery. Let us look at the miracle of “new land” obtained by accretion along a riverbank as a phenomena of newfound money. Property boundaries matter when your land is next to a river. If the river deposits land onto your riverfront by “accretion”, then who owns it? Accretion is the gradual increase to land, notably riparian land, stemming from the movement of water. A meandering river has no master. Certainly man-made law has not corralled a meandering river with anything close to perfection, or to some landowners, with any degree of satisfaction. Questions come up when riverfront boundaries naturally shift due to erosion or accretion.

In Norby v. Estate of Kuykendall, 2015 ND 232, 869 N.W.2d 405, Norby owned land adjacent to the Kuykendalls along the North Dakota-Montana border. Norby’s land was on the eastern Montana side and Kuykendal was on the western North Dakota side, with the Yellowstone River separating the properties. But, importantly, neither party’s deed history described the legal boundaries by reference to the Yellowstone River. Gradually the Yellowstone River moved eastward, eroding land from its eastern bank and accreting it on to the western bank. This “new land” on the North Dakota side made up 96 acres.

Norby brought suit to eject the Kuykendalls from the disputed property and to quiet title on the theory that the disputed land were his “riparian accretions.”

Typically riparian and ownership rights of a riverbank shift as the river moves without considering other fixed boundaries. Nevertheless, since Norby’s deed never mentioned the Yellowstone River as the property line, his argument sank.

Perhaps an even more relevant case is the older case of Perry v. Erling, 132 N.W.2d 889 (N.D. 1965). Mrs. Perry argued that she was entitled to “new land” formed by accretion. She owned land directly east of the Big Muddy originally as a non-riparian owner (i.e. landlocked). Since the original land survey in 1872, the river had shifted eastward eroding other intervening riparian lots and eventually turning Mrs. Perry’s lot into riparian land. Over time the river built up “new land” by accretion over the intervening lots. The Court rejected Mrs. Perry’s arguments by making clear that non-riparian owners, such as Mrs. Perry, are only entitled to the land that falls within their original property lines when their property boundaries were not set with reference to a body of water. The original riparian lot owners however would be entitled to the accreted lands.

These cases raise several important points for landowners who hold title to land near bodies of water. For instance, if your land now has additional riverbank or land because of how the river shifted over time, you may still not have ownership over any of the “new land” if your property description was not acquired with legal reference to a river. Laws that normally give rights to riverbank landowners will not help you in this case. However, if your original property boundary was set by descriptive reference to a river, then you may be able to claim the newly formed land as your own. The law of man does not direct the flow of a river.  So be specific in your land deed descriptions or be at the mercy of the river. A good scrivener (lawyer) is worth a thousand words.

Article Also Available at Bismark Tribute

David Ganje practices law in the area of natural resources, environmental and commercial law.