Environmental justice is the meaningful and fair involvement of all people in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental policies, regulations, and laws. Community Benefit Agreements can facilitate increased environmental justice in local communities.
What Are Community Benefit Agreements?
Community Benefit Agreements, or CBAs, are agreements between community organizations and developers laying out specific amenities the developer proposes in exchange for community support for their projects. As a result of increasing development in low-income areas, these agreements have become more popular throughout the United States.
How Do CBAs relate to Environmental Justice?
CBAs can be used as a mechanism to increase compliance with environmental regulations, particularly in the development of infrastructure within communities. CBAs have been used to advance affordable housing, promote local hiring, and implement living wage requirements, all while encouraging environmentally conscious decision-making. Environmentally-oriented CBAs often prioritize the use of green building techniques, the placement of solar panels on power buildings, the preservation of green spaces, and compliance with environmental standards.
Project developers can begin to engage with environmental justice communities by reaching out to community leaders and stakeholders early in the project-development process. Early and active engagement increases public trust and awareness of the project, especially when there is open dialogue and transparency on the part of both developers and regulators.
CBAs can advance environmental justice by keeping representatives and local community members informed of the project developments at all stages. To safeguard the environmental needs of the community, developers may involve environmental experts to learn more about the impact of the proposed development and engage with their recommendations.
How Are Localities Using CBAs to Benefit Residents?
Jurisdictions like Massachusetts, Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania have used CBAs not only to garner buy-in from the public and memorialize commitments from developers regarding construction of projects, but to notify residents of the benefits to the community of a project and to supplement those benefits where possible.
For example, in Massachusetts, developer Vineyard Wind and local non-profit Vineyard Power Co-operative signed “the nation’s first, federally recognized, offshore wind” CBA in 2015. (See Vineyard Wind, “In the Community”) That agreement required the parties to explore opportunities for power purchase agreements that would serve local communities and to seek job creation opportunities for the local community, among other benefits. It also specified that the parties should consult community stakeholders and discuss ways to amplify project benefits. (See Katherine Hoff and Katie Segal, “Offshore Wind & Community Benefits Agreements in California,” Berkeley Law Center for Law, Energy, & the Environment (June 2023) [PDF]) Because of the CBA, the developer received a 10% credit in the relevant Bureau of Ocean Energy Management auction. (See John David Baldwin, “Historic Partnership Allows Vineyard Power to Start Offshore Wind Farm,” Solar United Neighbors (July 17, 2015))
In 2022, Jobs to Move America (a non-profit organization advocating for the enhancement, equality, and quality of workplace environments) managed to get New Flyer (a Canadian multinational bus manufacturer) to make several far-reaching commitments in conjunction with a CBA.
Under that agreement, New Flyer promised that at its Anniston, Alabama, and Ontario, California plants 45% of new hires will be from historically disadvantaged groups that have had limited access to good jobs in American manufacturing. (See Steven Greenhouse, “Landmark Community Benefits Agreement with New Flyer Will Lift Workers in Two States,” The Century Foundation (May 31, 2022)) The CBA also provided that 20% of promotions at those plants will be from historically disadvantaged groups, where such groups would include people of color, women, and veterans.
In Pennsylvania, PECO (Pennsylvania’s largest electric and natural gas energy company) and the Wynnefield Residents Association (WRA) were in negotiations to establish a CBA in connection with PECO’s construction of a new electric substation in the WRA neighborhood. (See “Community Benefits Agreements: Wynnefield Advocacy and Development,” The Public interest Law Center)
On November 19, 2019, WRA members ratified a final CBA with PECO, establishing that PECO would provide annual grants for community organizations, job-training programs for local residents, and continued landscaping and maintenance of the area surrounding the substation. This process of negotiation is a testament to the benefits of CBAs and provided an avenue to allow this Philadelphia community to have a voice in determining the environmental and economic impact that development will have on their neighborhood. As stated by the Public Interest Law Center, counsel for WRA during the CBA negotiations, “this input and self-determination, which has so often been denied to communities of color like Wynnefield, is crucial to environmental justice.”
Conclusion: CBAs Benefit Communities and Developers
When developers listen to the concerns of a project’s host community, they ensure those communities, which are often economically disadvantaged and environmentally over-burdened, receive the opportunity to promote the most advantageous economic and environmental outcome for the area.
At the same time, project developers realize benefits as the engagement and participation of residents closest to the project can facilitate necessary state and local approvals while reducing costly opposition arising later in the project cycle after sizable investments have already been made. When an environmental justice community engages with and participates in a CBA, that involvement is usually more productive in mitigating the potential adverse effects of development and increasing its benefits to the community than blanket opposition to the project.
It is important to remember the Environmental Justice Act does not prescribe outcomes; it establishes a process by which under-represented communities are heard, seen, and can take part in the high-stakes environmental permitting process. By using CBAs, communities can reap the long-term benefits of improved infrastructure while at the same time playing a more active role in shaping their environmental as well as economic destiny.
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If you are a developer considering using a Community Benefit Agreement in your next project, WRVB Environmental and Regulatory attorneys can help you design the agreement and navigate the process. Contact any member of the team if you have questions.
The author thanks former WRVB associates April Jones and Peyton Farley, and 2023 Summer Associate Jeyle Sanchez for their co-authorship, research, and insightful contributions to this article.