FAIRFIELD — Looking to drum up support ahead of Election Day, Republican First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick visited her old neighborhood on Thursday to discuss local issues with residents.
Before talking to voters, Kupchick stopped by Whitewood Knoll Park along Route 58, a small garden leading into the neighborhood where she lived for a decade. A member of the Representative Town Meeting at the time, she said she convinced the town to purchase the land in 1999 and maintain it as open space in place of four proposed duplexes.
“I had to make a big speech on the RTM that I would get all the neighbors to help, and then we would invest to maintain it,” she told CT Examiner.
Kupchick, who is running against Democrat Bill Gerber, said she has kept up with the garden for more than 20 years, and that it’s a symbol of her longstanding commitment to Fairfield. Her running mate, Brian Farnen, a candidate for Board of Selectmen and former state representative, said he could attest to Kupchick’s dedication over the last four years.
“I honestly think that she’s done a great job turning the town around,” Farnen said. “Doing stuff at the local level, you can actually have more impact on things for your family, your kids and your neighbors. You can really effectuate change here in a way that you can’t at the state level.”
Walking down Whitewood Drive, Kupchick knocked on doors and caught up with her former neighbors, who guaranteed her their votes. She then came across an unfamiliar face — unaffiliated voter Phu Huynh, who moved to the neighborhood in 2011.
Asked if there was anything on his mind before Election Day, Huynh said he’s upset by the lasting effects of the contaminated fill pile.
Under the former administration, officials discovered in 2016 that Julian Enterprises, a property management company hired by the town, accepted asbestos and PCBs into the municipal fill pile, which had been used in the construction of almost 40 sites across Fairfield. Numerous former town employees have since been criminally charged for their involvement and, most recently, former Public Works Superintendent Scott Barlett was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to larceny and environmental charges.
When Kupchick was elected first selectwoman in 2019, she vowed to clean up the contaminated sites. She also recently approved an appropriation of more than $10 million to, in part, remove contaminants from beneath the structure and the parking lot of Penfield Pavilion, which currently violates Federal Emergency Management Agency and Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection standards.
“It has nothing to do with you. It happened years ago,” Huynh said. “Just frustrated with Penfield. I’m sure you’ve heard that a billion times.”
“Do you have any idea how I feel?” Kupchick responded. “It’s unbelievable, right? I mean, they put contaminated soil under the building, and then they ignored FEMA.”
Before approving funding for the Penfield remediation, Fairfield residents and officials debated whether they should knock down the pavilion and start anew, or keep it and address the violations for about $3 million more. Despite pushback, Kupchick told Huynh she made the right decision in maintaining the pavilion.
“To me, it was worth the investment. It sucks, I don’t like doing it. But people were like, ‘Knock it down,’” she said. “‘Knock it down? It’s a $10 million building.’”
“And it’s going to cost you $6 million to knock it down, and you’ll have nothing,” Farnen added.
Huynh told the candidates that he agrees with maintaining the pavilion, so long as it actually gets “taken care of.” Kupchick assured him that Penfield would be reopened in 2024.
Along with Penfield, Huynh expressed concern regarding state statute 8-30g, which stipulates that 10 percent of a municipality’s housing must be state-designated affordable, otherwise affordable housing developers can bypass local zoning laws. As of August, less than 3 percent of Fairfield housing is deemed affordable by the state.
While Huynh supports the idea of affordable housing in town, he said he’s worried the state mandate could mean a high volume of commercialization and overcrowding similar to nearby cities.
“I don’t want it to turn into Norwalk,” he said.
Kupchick told Huynh that she met with Gov. Ned Lamont about the law, and suggested he get rid it and instead create a fund for municipalities to buy their own properties. Using state funding, she said, Fairfield could take back control from “predatory developers” and work to reduce congestion.
“We don’t have any more space. There’s 275 miles of road, 62,000 people. Our infrastructure can’t handle 62,000 people,” Kupchick said. “We have to change the state law.”
As she walked to the next house, Kupchick told CT Examiner that affordable housing and taxes are the top issues she hears while door knocking, with public corruption following closely behind.
“People really were disgusted by what happened,” she said of the fill pile. “And we’re pretty close to having it all cleaned up.”