For years, contaminated sites in Niagara County have been, in effect, exempt from property taxes, because the county wouldn't foreclose on them if the taxes went unpaid.
The reason was that taking title to a brownfield or other polluted site – or even one thought to be contaminated – would make the county liable for the costs of cleaning up the site.
Now the county says it has struck an agreement with the state Department of Environmental Conservation under which the county can foreclose on as many as 86 contaminated or possibly contaminated sites without being stuck with the remediation cost.
Eventually, the county could resell the properties and try to make up for the $3.51 million owed in delinquent taxes on them, according to County Treasurer Kyle R. Andrews. The total owed including penalties is more than $7.9 million, if the current owners of the 86 sites ever paid up.
A DEC spokesman said the deal hasn't been completed.
"DEC always seeks innovative ways to cooperate with municipalities in a manner that promotes redevelopment by getting underutilized properties back onto the tax rolls and into productive use while simultaneously addressing potential contamination. DEC is currently working with Niagara County on an agreement to help achieve these goals and additional information will provided when it is available," a DEC statement said.
The 86 parcels include current or former Superfund sites, such as the old Carborundum-Globar site and other properties in a cluster of hazardous sites along the Town of Niagara-Niagara Falls border.
Other examples include some lots near the former Flintkote plant in Lockport and parcels along Wheatfield's western border, included more than 40 years ago in the Love Canal emergency declaration area.
"It’s really a sign of progress for some parcels which have long loomed on our tax rolls without having payment being made," Andrews said. "It certainly is something to look forward to in the new year, the ability of the county to begin to look at potential cleanup without always the cloud of liability over our head.”
"Some of these properties are very important to economic activity in Niagara County based on their location. They’re important to other businesses. They have very high potential for successful reuse," County Manager Richard E. Updegrove said.
"We can enter properties and test them and then move forward and have a place to put those properties. A lot of it has been perception, and now we can move forward with actual data because we have a solution," said Andrea Klyczek, the county's deputy economic development commissioner.
The county would take the properties and shift title to the Niagara Orleans Regional Land Improvement Corp., a two-county "land bank" which until now has dealt only with reselling blighted houses.
“The purpose of the land bank is to control the reuse and redevelopment of the property, as opposed to property that goes to a foreclosure that is now owned by the highest bidder," Updegrove said.
The land bank can investigate the possible contamination, determine a cleanup cost estimate and perhaps even begin work through the DEC's Brownfield Cleanup Program, Klyczek said.
“If we can get a lot of that work done ahead of time, we then put ourselves ahead of a lot of other places in terms of attracting brownfield developers into our county. It’s setting the stage for future development, and that’s what’s important," Klyczek said.
"The developer can take on the cleanup, because there are programs available for the developers of these properties," Updegrove said. "There are tax credits and other incentives available for developers."
The Buffalo News revealed in 2007 that the county was in effect waiving taxes on brownfields by not foreclosing on them, but not until 2018 did the county make its first effort to grapple with the issue.
That's when Andrews foreclosed on a strip plaza in the Town of Niagara with 24 years of unpaid taxes, and turned the property over to the town.
The county Brownfield Development Corp. gave the town $325,000 for demolition of the 1.15-acre plaza at 4435 Military Road, which had included a service station, tire store, dry cleaner and pizzeria.
In 2019 the DEC approved a plan to demolish the buildings and excavate two feet of soil, including low-level radioactive fill beneath the parking lot.
“The structures are gone and right now we’re just waiting for the DEC to finish up their requirements on some additional sampling, that we’re trying to tell them we don’t think is necessary," town Supervisor Lee S. Wallace said.
A DEC spokesman said the agency will require more soil samples to confirm that the top one foot of soil is clean enough to comply with brownfields program objectives.