Brown is the new black – at least in Connecticut.

The redevelopment of brownfields – abandoned, idled or underused industrial or commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination – is taking center stage at the highest levels of state government, garnering support from both the governor’s office and the Legislature.

“The degree of interest in brownfield redevelopment is truly astonishing,” said Ann Catino, chairwoman of the environmental and land-use practice group at Halloran & Sage in Hartford and co-chair of the state’s Brownfields Strategies Task Force.

Everyone from prospectors to private developers to environmental attorneys is taking notice, she said.

“And the Legislature obviously is very interested in the issue,” Catino said. “It’s caught their attention.”

Evidence of the new trend includes the Legislature’s creation of the brownfield task force last June. In the same act, legislators also created the state’s Office of Brownfield Remediation and Development. Currently, there are at least a dozen bills floating around the General Assembly that address brownfield issues – particularly funding.

And in her biennial budget proposal last week, Gov. M. Jodi Rell earmarked $7.5 million for brownfield redevelopment work.

The task force, which was scheduled to give its report to the General Assembly’s Commerce Committee yesterday, agrees with that figure – if you move the decimal one slot to the right.

The task force’s plan proposes $75 million in the first year to jumpstart brownfield redevelopment, with another $25 million added to the program in each of the following five years. In general terms, the funding represents a package of targeted loans and grants.

As loans are repaid, that money would go back into the program, Catino said. Likewise, grants used to redevelop properties could be repaid, at least in part, from profits made when those completed projects are sold.

“It’s not out of line with what other states have done,” she said.

The task force recommends creating an annual competitive grant, open to project proposals from around the state. Catino noted that as a result of the state’s manufacturing history, “Connecticut has thousands of brownfield sites. We’ve ended up with a lot of properties that need to be addressed and prioritized.”

The task force also calls on the state to create better coordination among all the entities involved in brownfield projects – such as the Department of Economic and Community Development, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Connecticut Development Authority and the Office of Responsible Growth.

The newly created Office of Brownfield Remediation and Development could be the key to that coordination, as it is meant to be “a one-stop informational point,” said Joe Oros, legislative program manager for DECD. The office’s Web site, – which posted the task force’s report last week – is designed to give prospective developers an overview of how to proceed with brownfield projects.

“The new office will try to develop a database of these properties,” Oros said.

‘It’s a Start’

If Rell receives her funding request, four new properties would be added to that database.

Of the $7.5 million Rell earmarked in her budget, $5 million would go toward four municipal programs tagged as pilot projects, Oros said. The four municipalities have yet to be determined.

The remaining $2.5 million would supplement existing regional revolving loan and grant funds that already are supporting brownfield developments, he said.

With the newly released report from the task force calling for $75 million – not to mention the varying funding levels proposed in the dozen or so brownfield bills – the amount of money to invest figures to be one of the key questions.

As for Rell’s proposed $7.5 million, “it’s a start,” said Andrew Davis, a partner in LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae in Hartford, who specializes in environmental law. He is also co-chairman of the conference, “Acquiring, Developing and Disposing of Brownfield Sites,” scheduled for April 30 and May 1 in Philadelphia.

“Hopefully next year it will be $17.5 million,” he said.

Davis, who has worked on brownfield projects for the past 17 years, said “the [brownfield] pendulum swings back and forth, depending on the market.”

Liability and environmental concerns have scared away some developers from various brownfield projects, he said. And those fears are not lost on the task force.

Specifically, the report states that “brownfields revitalization will not succeed without meaningful liability relief that distinguishes actual polluters from entities that are dedicated to remediating sites and bringing them into productive reuse.”

One way Davis currently advises clients to mitigate risk on brownfield projects is “begin with the future in mind,” he said. “What will be the future use of the site?”

Environmental assessment may show, for example, that a site not suited for residential development could work for a commercial or industrial use, he said.

“Environmental issues should not be the tail that wags the dog,” Davis said. “I think [brownfield projects] will keep going as long as people can keep being creative and box in the risk.”

The current level of attention devoted to brownfield projects, as well as potential reform, would seem to suggest the work will keep going.

“I think it’s hit a point of utter frustration,” Catino said. “People are tired of looking at these buildings and saying, ‘Why can’t we build here?'”

In addition, redeveloping brownfield sites appears to address multiple development issues all at once: reducing blight, building near transportation infrastructure and keeping new development off green and open spaces.

“Now is the appropriate time,” Catino said.