Bridgeport Joins Growing Opposition to $225M United Illuminating Project

United Illuminating power lines (CT Examiner)

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Bridgeport has joined Fairfield, preservationists, residents and business owners in questioning the “unreasonable” impacts of a proposed $225 million project by United Illuminating.

The utility company applied with the Connecticut Siting Council in March to replace its aging electric transmission lines with 100- to 135-foot monopoles along the Metro-North Railroad line in downtown Bridgeport, Fairfield and Southport. 

In August, the town of Fairfield intervened in the application process, opposing the 8.6 acres of permanent easements in town required by the project. According to the company’s standard easement form, it would have the right “at any time” to fill, excavate and remove structures obstructing its work near hundreds of houses and businesses.

In addition to Fairfield, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and local environmental groups like Sasco Creek Neighbors Environmental Trust Inc. have intervened in the process. The project has also been staunchly opposed by officials including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Rep. Jim Himes, State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, State Rep. Jennifer Leeper, D-Fairfield, State Rep. Sarah Keitt, D-Fairfield, First Selectman Bill Gerber and former First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick. 

But the City of Bridgeport, which would face about 10.7 acres of permanent easements under the proposal, did not intervene until a Tuesday council hearing.

Lee Hoffman, an attorney representing the city in United Illuminating’s application, said Bridgeport is concerned that the project would negatively impact future economic development, coastal resources, low-income residents and people of color.

“Bridgeport seeks to participate in these proceedings to prevent an unreasonable impact to its municipal interests and to the natural resources of the State including coastal and water resources,” Hoffman wrote in a Nov. 22 letter requesting party status from the council.

Given the potential impacts on the city’s tax revenue and a “material discriminatory impact” on the environmental justice community, Hoffman said, Bridgeport requested that the utility company consider other ways to strengthen its grid such as moving the transmission lines underground.

The city was not the first to suggest underground lines; many intervenors, including Fairfield, have all asked United Illuminating to consider alternatives. But the utility company said it already considered and rejected the underground option.

UI has estimated underground lines along the 7.3-mile project area would cost approximately $1 billion, take about a decade to construct and said the state — which currently leases the space on the New Haven line to the company for $877,500 per year — does not support the option. According to testimony from the state Department of Transportation, underground construction would interrupt railroad operations and interfere with existing state infrastructure.

But at the Tuesday hearing, Hoffman asked for special consideration of an alternative in Bridgeport alone.

“Why didn’t you consider undergrounding in Bridgeport only?” Hoffman asked.

UI project team members said that they analyzed the underground option for the entire stretch of the project, and gave no indication they would look further into Bridgeport’s request. The company’s director of environmental permitting and compliance, Todd Berman, noted that the city never requested that the lines be placed underground during the numerous meetings between Bridgeport and UI.

Similarly, the project team said they did not consider placing underground lines solely in historic areas.

In order to receive state approval, the company submitted a report identifying historic properties within the project area, including the Southport Historic District, the Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses in Bridgeport, and Southport Congregational Church. Of the 21 listed, the report named 12 properties that could be visually impacted by the monopoles due to planned vegetation clearing.

This month, the State Historic Preservation Office, National Trust and local historic preservationists called the report by Heritage Consultants, a firm hired by UI, into question, and maintained that the project will have adverse effects on historic properties. Several opponents have also insisted that the report is incomplete and does not identify all the potentially impacted properties.

But at the hearing, the company’s principal transmission engineer, MeeNa Sazanowicz, said placing the lines underground only around historic properties would not eliminate visual impacts, as some of the equipment would still need to be above ground to connect to nearby monopoles.

“In order to dip underground, we would still have to have the above-ground poles and riser structures,” Sazanowicz explained.

Attorney David Ball, representing Fairfield, continued to push for underground lines across the entire project area on Tuesday. 

Ball questioned the project team on each benefit of the underground option, compared to their above-ground proposal. UI employees acknowledged that underground lines are generally less susceptible to weather-related outages, pose a lesser visual impact and require less vegetation removal.

As Ball continued to question the company’s original analysis of the underground option, UI attorney Bruce McDermott objected. 

Fairfield and Bridgeport had the opportunity to question the contents of the application during earlier hearings, McDermott said, arguing that the parties have lost their chance to do so this late in the council’s process. He insisted that the municipalities should only question the UI panel on new document submissions. 

Council Chair John Morissettee agreed, but Ball continued stressing the importance of an underground alternative. 

“I’m simply trying to explore whether a few other alternatives were considered that might avoid a catastrophe in Fairfield, which is the taking of 19 acres of property,” Ball said.

In addition to Bridgeport and Fairfield, attorneys representing local businesses, residents, Southport Congregational Church and council members cross examined UI employees about their project at the two most recent hearings. 

At the end of the Tuesday meeting, Morissettee extended the hearing to Dec. 12. Per state guidelines, the council must issue its decision by March.