Purchasing a Contaminated Property in Arizona
Property owners need to follow environmental regulations to avoid liabilityBy Andrew Brandt | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on December 8, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Patrick J. Paul
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- 1. Learn the History of the Property You Want to Purchase
- 2. Getting an Environmental Site Assessment
- 3. Getting Liability Protection as a Bonafide Prospective Purchaser (BFFP)
- Getting an Experienced Environmental Professional
Phoenix is booming. And Patrick Paul, an environmental litigation attorney at Snell & Wilmer in Phoenix, says development has been rapid. So rapid, in fact, that more and more, he’s seeing investors interested in land that’s been contaminated—or, in other words, contains a recognized environmental condition (REC).
“Phoenix is interesting,” Paul says. “Most of downtown or metropolitan Phoenix is in or bordering upon either a federal or state Superfund area… We have properties that, maybe in a down economy, people would say, ‘I don’t want to take that risk.’”
So, say you do want to take that risk and purchase a contaminated property in Arizona. What are the reasonable steps you have to take to purchase the land? And how do you protect yourself from potential future liability?
1. Learn the History of the Property You Want to Purchase
The first step is to familiarize yourself with the history and use of the property. Paul notes that you should speak with your broker about the property’s history and get a title report, too.
If you have a sense that the property was, for example, previously a dry cleaner or a gas station—or you’re in an industrial area—then you’ll want to hire an environmental consultant. The consultant will then conduct a Phase I environmental site assessment.
2. Getting an Environmental Site Assessment
“[The assessment will] tell you the history of the property—that the tanks were removed and that there is or isn’t a formal regulatory closure on the property,” Paul says. “If there is [ a formal regulatory closure], you’re in a good situation.”
If there isn’t, you’ll need to work with your consultant and an environmental attorney to become a bonafide prospective purchaser.
3. Getting Liability Protection as a Bonafide Prospective Purchaser (BFFP)
Under the BFPP designation, notes Paul, you have protection from future environmental liability and also from most environmental agencies.
“Today, what I’m seeing more of is a willingness to understand the risk and proceed forward with the knowledge and information and protection,” Paul says. “You dot your i’s and cross your t’s, and you can fairly easily insulate yourself from liability.
“If you do [the Phase I assessment] and you’re still a little edgy, there’s a perspective purchaser agreement (PPA), under which you sit down with a state or federal agency, and you run down the litany of what you’ve got, what you know, what you’re going to do to make it better,” he continues, noting that most regulatory agencies are open to discussion and negotiations with a prospective buyer.
Of course, your future liability will also depend on what kind of business you plan to put on the land. “If you’re planning a daycare facility, you can bet your bottom dollar that your level of cleanup cost is going to have to be substantially greater than if you’re running a factory,” Paul says.
Getting an Experienced Environmental Professional
If you do plan on purchasing contaminated land for a future business in Arizona, reach out to an experienced environmental attorney for legal advice about minimizing and managing risk. “None of this stuff is necessarily bulletproof,” Paul says. “You conduct due diligence as thoroughly as possible and come to as informed a decision as you can, but the total and complete elimination of risk is probably impossible.”
For more information on this legal area, including environmental issues with contaminated sites and potential liability, see our overviews of environmental law. For more information on real estate transactions and commercial real estate, see our real estate law overview.
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