FAIRFIELD – Staunchly opposing a plan by United Illuminating that would require 8.6 acres of permanent easements on hundreds of Fairfield houses and businesses, residents packed into a Wednesday meeting at the Fairfield Warde High School auditorium, and pleaded for an alternative.
The utility company has been replacing aged transmission lines along the Metro North railroad line since 2017 in order to improve the resiliency and reliability of the electric system. They’ve already completed the work in West Haven, Milford, Stratford and part of Bridgeport, and the proposed $225 million project from downtown Bridgeport, through Fairfield, and into Southport is the final phase.
United Illuminating breezed through the approval process with the Connecticut Siting Council for all previous phases – in two months for West Haven to Milford, one month for Milford to Stratford and two months for Stratford to Bridgeport. But in Fairfield, residents are determined to slow down the project and find a palatable alternative.
In front of the stage, the company’s project team members sat beside First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick and the local delegation – state Sen. Tony Hwang, state Reps. Jennifer Leeper, Cristin McCarthy Vahey and Sarah Keitt – as the crowd of frustrated residents and business owners stepped up to the microphone for more than three hours.
“I’ll ask somewhat rhetorically: Where does a multibillion-dollar gorilla sit? And the answer is right on top of your home, on top of your business, on top of your church, on top of your community, smothering the life right out of you and making gobs of profit at your loss,” said Reverend Paul Whitmore, addressing the panel. “That is this project.”
Whitmore, the senior minister of Southport Congregational Church, told the panel that the church is just one of many Fairfield properties that the company would be placing a permanent easement on – allowing the company to carry out construction while disrupting daily operations like the church’s 100-student preschool program.
While hundreds of Fairfield properties abut the 4.8-mile stretch of proposed work in town, Whitmore and other meeting attendees said they received no proper notice about previous public meetings or an ongoing approval process with the Connecticut Siting Council – which began in March.
United Illuminating has also been vague about exact impacts on the town, Whitmore said, which include 5.8 acres of vegetation clearing, new permanent access roads, and 68 new monopoles along the rail lines ranging from 100- to 135-feet tall.
“You did not accurately disclose the scope, impact and cost of the project,” Whitmore said.
Company representatives said they sent notices to property owners as early as 2021, but attendees and residents maintained that they never received the notices and were unaware of the proposal until this summer.
The underground option
Since finding out about the project and realizing its impacts, residents have asked United llluminating to instead consider building the transmission lines underground.
“There is another way to accomplish the goal of moving energy without crushing individuals, communities and businesses,” Whitmore said.
But during a presentation of the project by company staff, Shawn Crosbie – the manager of the transmission projects – said underground lines are far more costly than monopoles and not supported by the state Department of Transportation.
According to Crosbie, his company had presented a few different alternatives to the state department of transportation, including underground lines. But the state refused to support the option, he said, because the utility company installing lines parallel to the state’s underground equipment could obstruct work to state equipment.
Additionally, Crosbie said, underground lines would more than double the project cost to about $745 million.
Another company panelist, Principal Transmission Engineer MeeNa Sazanowicz, said the underground option would also pose a greater impact to residents as they would have to trench the area, resulting in road closures and an extended construction period. Underground lines could also mean longer outages, she said, as they’re more difficult for repair crews to access than above ground poles.
Explanations by company staff only prompted additional questions and confusion from the residents. And later in the meeting, staff members eventually said the underground option is still technically under consideration.
Ken Astarita, a member of the Representative Town Meeting, pointed out that similar improvement projects in Westport and Norwalk are underground, and asked why Fairfield couldn’t do the same. But in response, Sazanowicz said United Illuminating is still in the process of studying underground lines in Fairfield.
“So that’s still an option that’s on the table? The underground option,” Astarita questioned.
“That is an option that we have presented to them, correct,” Sazanowicz said of the Connecticut Siting Council application.
But with one company representative stating that underground lines are not a viable option while another claimed they are still under consideration, attendees began to question the company’s intentions and demanded clear answers.
Resident Steve Ozyck told the panelists that the town understands the need to harden the electric grid and improve resiliency. However, he said, attendees were hoping United lluminating would act as an “honest broker” at the public meeting and answer their outstanding questions.
“The hope is that you weren’t here to placate us,” Ozyck said. “That’s actually what everybody in this room is hoping for.”
“We are not here to placate you,” Projects Vice President Jim Cole responded. “We’re listening and taking it all in.”
But Ozyck argued that, in addition to the underground alternative, the utility firm had been unclear about its communication to the town and about the ongoing Connecticut Siting Council hearing.
According to state regulations, the council can allow people impacted by an active application to function as intervenors – meaning that they can officially file their questions to the applicant ahead of the hearings, and the applicant is required to respond.
In August, impacted residents, businesses and the town of Fairfield filed for intervenor status with the siting council. Many of the intervenors, including the town, also asked the council to extend the hearings as they said they were unaware of the United Illuminating application until recently. The council agreed, granting an additional hearing for November 16.
Attorney Mario Coppola – who is representing numerous Fairfield property owners acting as intervenors – questioned why the company had motioned for the council to reject “every single” property owner’s requests for intervenor status. The panelists denied the claim.
“We didn’t file a motion to oppose people to become intervenors,” replied Crosbie.
But later in the meeting, attorney Bruce McDermott, outside counsel for the company, confirmed that he had, indeed, filed the motions to reject the residents’ requests.
For the majority of the meeting, McDermott sat silently beside residents in the auditorium seats. But after attendees made numerous requests for a clear answer from the company, he walked to the front of the room and explained that anyone interested in intervening had three months from the application date, March 17, to do so. Because the applications came after the deadline, he said, United Illuminating motioned to oppose them.
However, because the council has now extended the hearing into November, the company will no longer oppose the intervenor applications, McDermott added.
For each application for approval from the council, a decision must be issued 12 months after the date of filing. But Coppola argued that because residents were unaware of the application until this summer, the utility company should instead withdraw their application and apply again, giving more residents the opportunity to intervene and get their questions answered.
“Simply, what can be done here is UI could withdraw, and refile and restart that 12-month,” Coppola suggested. “It’s a reasonable opportunity to… give ourselves the time to work with UI and try to find solutions to problems.”
Company staff did not respond to Coppola’s request. However, at the start of the meeting, Kupchick and the United Illuminating panelists explained that the company is actively working with the town to address some resident concerns.
Kupchick said she is working with Hwang and Leeper to create a priority list of residences and businesses that would be “most impacted” by the project. She said she also met with company President Frank Reynolds, who agreed to consider the list.
An unclear timeline
Kupchick also asked meeting attendees to keep discussions about the project “civil and respectful.” Before the meeting, she said, she was made aware that the issue had been “politicized.”
“I really am asking sincerely for our community tonight to ask questions, because we have residents and businesses who have real impact to their properties,” Kupchick said. “And I don’t think it would be appropriate to politicize an important issue like this.”
Prior to the meeting, some residents and officials published social media posts and submitted letters to the editor stating that town leadership should have notified the community sooner.
In an August letter to CT Examiner, Representative Town Meeting Majority Leader Elizabeth Zezima claimed that the administration was notified of the project in both 2021 and fall of 2022, but took no action to advocate for Fairfield before the application was submitted to the Connecticut Siting Council.
Based on a timeline of stakeholder outreach submitted by the company to the council, United Illuminating claims that they first introduced the project to Fairfield town leadership and reached out to abuting property owners in July of 2021.
But in a Tuesday newsletter to residents, Kupchick said “misinformation” has been spread around the community, and said she was not aware that the town could apply for intervenor status until August 2023.
Notably, at the meeting, attendees did not address Kupchick with their lingering concerns about the administration’s response time.