FAIRFIELD – A packed house gathered Wednesday to hear Board of Selectman candidates debate key issues in town, including affordable housing, accountability and growing political tensions.
The League of Women Voters of Connecticut collected questions from attendees and moderated two separate debates — one between Republican First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick and Democratic challenger Bill Gerber, and another between their running mates, Republican Brian Farnen and Democrat Christine Vitale.
Kupchick, a former state representative who is vying for her second term in Fairfield’s top seat, used the event as an opportunity to highlight ongoing initiatives and transparency between the town and its residents. But Gerber, a longtime member of the Representative Town Meeting, pointed to broken promises made by the incumbent.
Specifically, Gerber criticized Kupchick’s role in a $225 million plan by United Illuminating to replace aged transmission lines along the Metro North railroad line in town.
Earlier this month, residents and officials gathered to oppose the utility company’s plan, as it would require 8.6 acres of permanent easements on hundreds of local houses and businesses. Many said they were unaware of the plans, which the company said they began publicizing in 2021, until this summer.
At the meeting, Kupchick vowed she would work with United Illuminating to find an alternative plan. But on Wednesday, Gerber said the first selectwoman has known about the project for years and that she should have acted sooner.
“Two years ago, United Illuminating came to town and met with our town leaders, including my opponent, and outlined a plan that would involve taking property from homeowners,” Gerber said. “I think what the town needs to do with situations like that is if they don’t know what to do … you pick up the phone and call a land use lawyer. And the next day, you should be starting to plan to inform residents.”
But Kupchick argued the plans presented to her at the 2021 meeting were not the new proposed plan, which requires just 5.8 acres of vegetation clearing and 68 new monopoles along the railroad. From the outside looking in, she said, it can be difficult to understand all of the details.
“The information wasn’t clear to the town, and I think that was by design,” Kupchick said. “As soon as the town realized what the real plan was for these poles and these utility transmission lines, we jumped into action immediately.”
Alongside numerous residents and local businesses, Fairfield filed for and was granted intervenor status in August for UI’s application with the Connecticut Siting Council, meaning they can officially file their questions about the project and the applicant is required to respond.
While Kupchick told attendees she is committed to fighting the plan, Gerber urged residents to look through the timeline of communication between UI in town spanning back to 2021. He said there is a lack of detail available, especially when it comes to utility companies.
“Look at the things that were sent out by the town very early on, as early as January. Things were sent out with the actual plans on them. If you click through and actually read the plans, you would have seen how much land was proposed to be taken. And that should have alerted the town,” Gerber said.
In addition to pushing back on the UI plan, Kupchick said she also opposed the state’s 8-30g statute during her tenure.
Under 8-30g, the state requires at least 10 percent of a municipality’s housing is state-designated affordable, otherwise developers can bypass local zoning laws if 30 percent of the units in a proposed development are considered affordable. Kupchick told attendees that the law is “antiquated,” which is why she opposed it while serving in the state Legislature.
“It’s an antiquated law because it allows predatory developers to overbuild, blow through local zoning laws and build a lot of units, and only afford a small percentage of them as affordable,” she said.
Kupchick said she has worked to find ways for the town to take back control over affordable housing development. For example, she said, the town purchased land and worked with Habitat for Humanity to build four affordable units this year.
But Gerber questioned Kupchick’s approach to 8-30g, and cautioned her against demonizing developers. Rather than calling them “predatory,” he said, the town should work with developers to build larger affordable housing complexes.
“I think this highlights an incredibly big gap in our leadership styles. My view is that calling developers predatory is not really helping the situation,” Gerber said. “… There are no benefits to yelling and screaming about predatory developers, unless you’re willing to actually take local control.”
Gerber said local control means giving town officials the tools to seek out and purchase open space, and negotiate deals with interested developers.
But Kupchick argued the town has done just that under her leadership.
“We’ve invested in more affordable units that the town has control over than any other administration in 20 years,” she replied. “And I’m going to continue doing that because it’s really important for our community to be able to be in control of its own destiny, and not be at the will of — and they are — predatory developers.”
The running mates
Board of Selectmen candidates Farnan and Vitale also elaborated on their platforms.
Farnen, a former state representative and RTM leader, said he supports investing in town infrastructure, advocating against 8-30g and lowering taxes by growing the grand list.
Vitale, a six-year Board of Education member and former chair of the board, said she promises to appoint the most qualified people for boards and commissions, support first responders and advocate for public schools.
The running mates also tackled the issue of growing political divisiveness in Fairfield. Of late, votes on the Board of Selectmen and RTM have often been split by party lines. At the debate, both candidates said they would work to unify the community.
Farnen said he’s had a track record of working across the aisle throughout his political career, and would continue to do so on the board.
Ensuring that Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated residents are appointed to town boards and commissions could help stop national politics from bleeding into local politics, he added.
“We see the politics play out at a national level, and sometimes we see it in our own community,” Farnen said. “And it needs to stop.”
Vitale said she has taken pride in her conduct on the school board, noting she has always worked to be as “nonpartisan as possible.” If elected, she said she would continue that practice on the Board of Selectmen.
“I would look forward to working with the other members of the Board of Selectmen, just to improve the civil discourse right now,” Vitale said. “I would want to engage the community, just to hear their concerns and address issues earlier in the process so they don’t rise to that level of discord.”
As Kupchick is the only member of the Board of Selectmen running for reelection, all three seats on the board are up for grabs. Though Kupchick and Farnen, and Gerber and Vitale are running as pairs, the duos may not work together next year, as the town appoints selectman seats to the three highest vote-getters in the November election.