Facing Public Opposition, State Officials Take Harder Look at UI Plans Through Fairfield County

Existing wiring along the Northeast Corridor in Fairfield County (CT Examiner)

Share

TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

More than a year after the State Historic Preservation Office gave qualified support to plans by United Illuminating to upgrade existing wiring along ten miles of the Northeast Corridor through Bridgeport, Southport and Fairfield, the stage agency is now asking that the Connecticut Siting Council instead delay approval, citing possible adverse impacts to the region.

The last-minute intervention comes eight months into the application process. 

“It is the opinion of this office that the scope of work as proposed will have an adverse effect to historic resources,” State Historic Preservation Officer Jonathan Kinney warned the Siting Council in a Nov. 17 letter. Kinney asked that the Orange-based subsidiary of the Spanish multinational Iberdrola work with the agency to resolve the issue. 

The proposed $255 million project would allow the company to establish a widened utility corridor along the existing railroad, including 19.25 acres of easements, clearing 6.5 acres of trees and shrubs, and constructing new 100 to 135-foot monopoles to carry new electric wires. 

According to United Illuminating’s standard easement form, the company would have the right “at any time and from time to time” to construct and reconstruct its equipment, fill and excavate the area and remove any structures obstructing their work within the 19.25 acres.

Asked by CT Examiner to explain what had prompted the agency’s last-minute intervention, and the apparent about-face, Kinney wrote in a Wednesday email that “our opinion has not changed.” 

A report by Heritage Consultants, a firm hired by United Illuminating, at the time identified just 21 historic properties within the project area, and the analysis identified 12 properties that could be visually impacted by the tall monopoles and clearing.

And in an Oct. 31, 2022 letter, Kinney called the report “well-written,” “comprehensive,” concluding that it met state standards, while requesting some mitigation efforts and additional analysis.

But in a letter submitted on Friday, Kinney wrote instead to ask the Siting Council to delay approvals until the company provides additional information. Kinney told the council that the agency had heard concerns about the quality of the Heritage Consultants report.  

The utility project has met fierce last-minute opposition from residents and elected officials in the affected towns including State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, State Rep. Jennifer Leeper, D-Fairfield, State Rep. Sarah Keitt, D-Fairfield, and First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick. In September, Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Congressman Jim Himes also sent a letter to the Siting Council, urging them to reject the application. Sen. Chris Murphy has yet to weigh in on the issue.

That opposition has also received the support of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which secured intervenor status at the Nov. 16 hearing before the Siting Council.

In a phone call on Wednesday with CT Examiner, Thompson Mayes, chief legal officer for National Trust, said he agreed that the analysis completed by Heritage Consultants was incomplete.

“We don’t think that the Siting Council has the full information on the impact of historic resources and, therefore, they have not had an opportunity to fully consider the effect on historic resources,” Mayes said. “So, I appreciate the State Historic Preservation Office writing to express that.” 

Asked what might have sparked the additional concerns from the State Historic Preservation Office, Mayes suggested that new testimony by preservationists on the application may have played a role.

“The State Historic Preservation Office doesn’t always have all the information it needs to help address the impacts or effects on historic resources. Often when new information comes to light, they then begin to address it,” Mayes said.

In addition to the National Trust, a number of other businesses, organizations and entities have been included as interventors in the Siting Council hearing, including Sasco Creek Neighbors Environmental Trust Inc., nearby businesses like BJ’s Wholesale Club and the Town of Fairfield. Intervenor status allows for legal counsel to question the United Illuminating project team during the hearing proceedings. 

At the most recent Siting Council evidentiary hearing, an attorney representing some local preservation groups and historic property owners questioned Heritage Consultants President David George about the quality of his Sept. 2022 report. 

Included in the report’s list of the 21 historical properties are the Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses, Southport Congregational Church, and Southport Historic District. 

But attorney Mario Coppola argued at the Nov. 16 hearing that Heritage Consultants had counted the entire Southport Historic District as a single impact, rather than analyzing the impacts on each of the historic properties within the district.

George explained that, by state guidelines, his company is only responsible for identifying properties on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. And the national register, he said, lists Southport Historic District as a single place.

“Our job as a consultant is not to evaluate historic resources,” George said. “It’s simply to provide an inventory for SHPO for their consideration for project effects.”

But Coppola pushed back, pointing to testimony submitted to the Siting Council by Wes Haynes – a historic preservationist engaged by the Town of Fairfield. 

In his testimony, Haynes noted that the Heritage Consultants report had identified “only three” resources within the Southport Historic District. In reality, he said, there are approximately 150 historic structures within the district.

In a Wednesday message to CT Examiner, Haynes was supportive of the recent intervention by SHPO, and asked that the company be required to complete a new assessment. 

“The cultural resource assessment submitted by UI’s consultant is incomplete and erroneous,” wrote Haynes. “The report downplays the quantity and significance of historic places within the project’s area of potential effect, resulting in misleading conclusions.”

Haynes urged Council to require a new assessment given the “unusually high” number of nationally-significant historic structures in Fairfield, Southport and Bridgeport. 

Asked by CT Examiner on Tuesday to explain a possible conflict interest, given that Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Catherine Labadia is married to David George, the president of the firm conducting the review for United Illuminating, officials at the agency made clear that Labadia was not involved in the review, and that the agency has been aware of the relationship since 2014.

The next Siting Council hearing on the United Illuminating application is scheduled for Nov. 28.