Who Really Benefits? A CBA Workshop
For the past semester, a group of student lawyers at the Maryland Student Law Clinic have been researching community benefit agreements (CBA’s) on behalf of CFET. They have looked into the legal history of these types of contracts, the forms they have taken in different contexts and circumstances, as well as their effectiveness and the satisfaction of the community groups involved. In a recent online workshop they had the chance to report on what they had learned to a small group of CFET staff and allies.
CBA’s are a relatively recent form of contract, having gained popularity in the late 1990 and early 2000’s. They were imagined as a way for communities to secure concessions from developers in their neighborhood. This was meant to be an improvement over the typical development scenario up until that time, in which the community could choose to stand idly by, hoping that some positive would trickle down to them or they could oppose the project and lobby for permits to be denied or seek legal action to block it. The benefits could take many forms such as local hiring guarantees, some sort of environmental mitigation, or a cash payout. In exchange, the community groups that sign the contract agree to waive their right to protest the development. In principle, this agreement is supposed to be a win – win. It streamlines the process for developers by getting out in front of any potential community pushback while also allows neighbors to realize some financial gains from economic development taking place in their backyard.
However, once the dust settles and years have passed the record for CBA/s is rather mixed. Here are some of the issues. As it turns out, CBA’s are also difficult to enforce and many communities fool that their conditions were not met. While communities do have legal recourse if the contract is broken, there have been an insufficient number of cases brought to court to determine how the law would apply to such decisions. There is also the issue of who exactly is the “community” that agrees to the contract in the first place. A community group or nonprofit cannot claim to represent every person living in a neighborhood. In fact it is common for residents to have a range of opinions and getting groups to agree on what sort of demands are reasonable, and some may not wish to give up their ability to oppose development regardless of what may be offered in return.
This brings us to our situation in Camden, where multiple established polluting industries have signaled a potential willingness to form CBA’s with community groups. In addition, a large energy development project called the microgrid will also likely be putting a CBA on offer. There is already a split in opinions. Some residents are resigned to the existence of the polluters, and as a practical matter are ready to accept some form of restitution from industries that they view as not going anywhere soon. Others have a more principled stance and do not wish to enter agreements with companies that pollute. Whose voice in this case will represent the community? How much compensation is necessary to offset the social harms being caused? It is too early to tell. Thanks to the Maryland Student Law Clinic, residents will at least be able to make an informed decision.
About the Grantee
The Center for Environmental Transformation (CFET) in Camden, New Jersey engages, educates, and inspires people to practice a more environmentally responsible way of living on the planet.