Whole Lotta Brown

Regina has a lot of contaminated lots

by Paul Dechene

Ever pass an empty lot on a busy inner-city street and wonder why it hasn’t been turned into an office block, condos or a strip mall? Well, many of those empty lots are “brown field sites,” which means they’re lots where the soil is contaminated. Most often the contamination results from the lot being a former gas station which leaked gasoline and other petrochemicals.

One of these brown field sites was a subject of some discussion at the May 21 meeting of city council. It sits at the corner of 14th and Albert St., just across the street and a block north of another brown field site at the corner of 15th and Albert.

Council was considering an application to put a nightclub in the building next to the 14th and Albert lot when a neighbouring business owner wondered why the vacant brown field site couldn’t be used for parking.

During the council discussion, it was revealed that the lot was owned by Imperial Oil and due to their concerns about the liability attached to a contaminated lot they were unwilling to sell or develop the lot. This frustrated Councillor Flegel who pointed out that there are many of these abandoned lots lying useless around the city. He wondered what could be done to force the development of these lots.

According to city staff, nothing. As long as Imperial Oil pays its taxes and maintains the lot, the city can’t compel them to do anything with it. And even though the city could conceivably raise taxes to a punitive level, it is unlikely that even that would compel the development of the site.

“If you think about the market values of the properties, they’ve doubled in the last six or seven years and that hasn’t motivated these lots to be developed,” says Don Barr, the city’s Director of Assessment and Taxation. “The issue with these isn’t a financial one, it’s the environmental legislation.”

Barr says that the even if the land is sold, the original owner would still be liable in the case of any civil lawsuits related to the contamination.

“When you think about what the liability could be, taxation isn’t likely to offset that,” says Barr.

In other words, if we ever hope to see these brown field lots cleaned up and developed, we have to hope that provincial environmental legislation changes so that these landowners won’t carry the environmental liability in perpetuity.

Barr believes that such legislative changes are in the works but is not sure when we’ll hear more about them.

Representatives from the provincial ministry of the environment were unavailable for comment before press time.

2013-05-30