FAIRFIELD – Residents joined by several local leaders and elected officials assembled on the lawn of the Pequot Library on Sunday to protest a plan by United Illuminating that would place easements on local properties along the Northeast Rail Corridor and clear acres of vegetation.
“UI is trying to take permanent easements from private homes. Will we allow that?” shouted Laura Whitmore, associate minister of the Southport Congregational Church, into the microphone.
“No!” the crowd replied in unison.
“UI is trying to take permanent easements from beloved businesses like Dairy Queen and Rawleys, Hemlock Hardware, Hansen’s Flower Shop, LobsterCraft and many, many more. Will we allow that?” Whitmore asked.
“No!” the residents repeated.
Under the $225 million proposed project, United Illuminating would swap aged transmission lines for new 100- to 135-foot monopoles along the Metro-North railroad line from downtown Bridgeport through Fairfield and into Southport. The utility company has already performed similar line work in West Haven, Milford, Stratford and part of Bridgeport. This would be the final phase of the project.
But in Fairfield, residents have staunchly opposed the plan, which would require 5.8 acres of vegetation clearing and 8.6 acres of permanent easements.
On Sunday, State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, State Rep. Jennifer Leeper, D-Fairfield and and Republican First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick joined Empowering Fairfield, a nonprofit organizing the protest.
“We need to be united right now to fight a common goal, and that is: bury the lines, respect the community, and stop with this outrageous expansion,” said Hwang.
Wearing matching yellow shirts that read “SAVE OUR TOWN” AND “STOP UI,” the crowd clapped along as the elected officials demanded the wires to be installed underground – a proposal the utility company was unwilling to commit to last month.
In October, the town held a well-attended question and answer session at Fairfield Warde High School with the United Illuminating project team. Asked if the company could instead bury the lines underground, the oroject team said the alternative would more than double the cost of the project to about $745 million — a cost that will be funded by UI customers – and would block access to state-owned underground equipment.
But while the Connecticut Siting Council, the state body with legal jurisdiction over transmission lines, has approved the above-ground project through the other towns, Leeper told the crowd on Sunday that Fairfield can still fight and win.
“Three other communities have been totally taken advantage of because they don’t have the means and the resources to fight like we do,” Leeper said.
To secure approval from the state, United Illuminating submitted a project application to the Siting Council in March. The council has already held three public hearings on the matter – in July, August and October – and has scheduled another for Nov. 16.
In an email, UI spokesperson Sarah Wall Fliotsos, said that, “UI respects and appreciates the community interest in the Fairfield to Congress transmission line rebuild, which is the final element of a 5-section upgrade program from Fairfield to New Haven that has benefitted all Connecticut communities, including Fairfield, since 2016. We are committed to working with town leadership and adhering to the processes set forth by the Connecticut Siting Council. As essential functions like transportation and home heating increasingly rely on electricity, transmission upgrades like this one are imperative if we are to meet growing demand and connect clean energy sources to residences and businesses across Fairfield and all of Connecticut, in line with the public policy goals set out by the legislature and the Lamont Administration.”
Since learning about the proposed work, the Town of Fairfield, local businesses and resident groups have secured intervenor status for the application, forcing the company to respond to their submitted questions and concerns.
But Kupchick told the crowd that she has little faith in the council after attending the Oct. 17 hearing.
“To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t have a whole lot of confidence in the Siting Council after seeing the last meeting. I wasn’t feeling confident or encouraged by the comments or the behavior of the members of the Siting Council,” Kupchick said.
At the October meeting, the council members extended the interventor application deadline and approved requests for intervenor status by impacted groups including the Pequot Library Association and Trinity Episcopal Church. At the same time, they rejected the town’s motions to extend the deadline for submitting evidence from Nov. 2 to Nov. 30, and to continue the hearings until Jan. 8.
But Kupchick told the crowd that even if the council approves the project, the town will continue to fight it.
“The Siting Council is not the end,” she said. “The town fully intends to go to court and fight this for as long as we have to.”
Kupchick said efforts by Empowering Fairfield have had a clear impact – United Illuminating President Frank Reynolds called her on Friday, she said, and promised to meet with affected residents and business owners.
“I am feeling encouraged by it. And frankly, I think it’s because of all of you, and I really want to thank you for your advocacy,” Kupchick said. “The town stands with all of you.”
In addition to protesting the project at the townwide meeting and council hearings, Empowering Fairfield has garnered more than 1,200 signatures for an online petition and collected donations to fund legal representation for the group.
At the Sunday protest, members of the nonprofit handed out free shirts to attendees, set up a station with their own make signs and encouraged them to sign their names on a long banner.
According to the speakers, the protestors’ request to march beside the Metro North line was denied by the town. Still, some encouraged attendees to walk regardless.
“I don’t know what you guys are gonna do next, but I’m gonna go take a walk through our beautiful town of Southport, and then down to the yacht club, and I’m gonna come back,” said Paul Whitmore, senior minister of Southport Congregational Church. “That’s what I’m gonna do. I can’t tell you what to do.”
After the event, the organizers carried the signed banner and waved it at passersby down Southport’s Pequot Ave. and Center St.
This story has been updated to include comments from United Illuminating