The towns of Fairfield and Bridgeport joined residents recently in opposing a years-old plan by United Illuminating to rewire a ten-mile stretch of the Northeast Corridor, sparking criticism from some affected property owners that their aid and notice from the utility should have arrived far sooner.
UI has been replacing aged transmission lines and monopoles along the rail line since 2017 in segments stretching through West Haven, Milford, Stratford and part of Bridgeport.
The latest proposal, which has sparked much of the opposition, is the fifth and final phase of the project, requiring 19.25 acres of easements, clear seven acres of trees and brush, and add 102 new monopoles up to 135 feet tall, at a cost to customers of about $225 million. Affected properties include downtown Bridgeport, Fairfield and the village of Southport.
Yet, most residents say they were unaware of the project and its potential impacts on their properties until this summer – about five months after United Illuminating submitted the project for state approval, and about two years after Fairfield and Bridgeport officials first reviewed the proposal.
At an Oct. 4 meeting in Fairfield with United Illuminating officials, the company assured attendees that the company had mailed notices to project abutters as early as July 2021. In response, members of the audience began to shout from their seats, some insisting they hadn’t received notice.
Reverend Paul Whitmore, senior minister of Southport Congregational Church, placed the blame squarely on UI.
“Proper notice, by evidence of all the response here time again, was not given by UI. You did not accurately disclose the scope, impact and cost of the project,” charged Whitmore.
Company efforts at outreach
In an effort to rebut the charges, United Illuminating provided CT Examiner with a summary of the company’s outreach efforts, as well as documents to evidence some of their efforts.
Company officials said they sent a first mailing to the roughly 500 abutting property owners in Fairfield, Bridgeport and Westport on July 27, 2021. The company also issued three rounds of invitations to the abutters to attend public meetings in January, and enclosed a project information sheet with customer bills that month.
The company told CT Examiner that it had emailed invitations to local groups like the Black Rock NRZ, published legal notices in the CT Post, Fairfield Citizen, Westport News in February and March, and installed six signs at local train stations and substations to alert residents of the first hearing for the project application in July.
Altogether, United Illuminating officials say they’ve engaged in about 150 calls, visits and emails with residents to date, held both in-person and virtual public meetings, booked individual appointments with project experts and created a website for the project, which has logged about 3,000 unique visitors.
Among the documents sent to CT Examiner, United Illuminating attached a copy of the July 2021 letter to abutters, a receipt of meeting invitations mailed to 288 abutters in Fairfield on Jan. 3, a copy of the bill insert from Jan. 17, and affidavits in which the company swore that it published the notices in newspapers and at train stations.
Outreach absent understanding?
But in a call on Friday to CT Examiner, one Southport resident said that most abutters don’t deny that United Illuminating posted about the project. The reason they are upset, she said, is that the company failed to fully explain the impact of the project before applying to the state.
“I understand they sent out communications. The issue is they didn’t include the information that would raise the hair on the back of people’s necks,” said Andrea Ozyck. “They didn’t send out the pertinent information, which is the size of the poles, the fact that they would be taking easements, the fact that there would be such a significant number of easements, and then the significant amount of mature trees that they were going to be clearing.”
The July 2021 letter to abutters, which was provided to CT Examiner, included a fact sheet and letter signed by the company’s outreach specialist, Leslie Downey, outlining the project’s purpose and need, location, timeline and benefits, and included two bullet points detailing the scope:
- “Staking, vegetation clearing, access roads and work pad construction”
- “Installation of drilled foundation supported monopoles and conductors”
Downey invited recipients to reach out to the company with questions or concerns.
But Ozyck, who said she first heard about the project in 2021, claims that she didn’t learn about the easements until later.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, this seems like nothing to see here. It seems like it’s a necessary thing.”
But in June 2023, Ozyck said her neighbor found a United Illuminating employee marking trees in their backyard, and she began to wonder if the project was more than “just a rebuild.” After some research, she found and reviewed the company’s full application with the state council.
Ozyck and her husband soon created the nonprofit Sasco Creek Neighbors Environmental Trust Inc., to raise awareness and funds for a legal defense.
The first couple of council hearings, she said, went unnoticed, but residents and officials began to tune in by the end of the summer.
“There were like five people, maybe, from the community,” Ozyck said of the first hearing. “And then on the next hearing, it was more like 25. And then after that, it was hundreds. And the last two hearings have been between 450 and 500.”
Too little too late?
Then-First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick was the target of significant criticism during the fall elections from Fairfield residents who say she should have realized the impacts of the project sooner and warned the town.
Kupchick, who denies claims that she failed the town, has called on United Illuminating to withdraw its application.
But United Illuminating officials say that since July 2021 they’ve held six in-person meetings with Fairfield officials to discuss the plan – often with Kupchick in attendance. And the town has been engaged throughout the process, according to the company, even sending a letter in Sept. 2021 asking for additional information, including easement requirements and potential screening to block the poles in areas of Southport and the Southport Historic District.
UI officials say they also met numerous times in 2021 with Bridgeport officials, and discussed similar changes. Mayor Joe Ganim was not present for those meetings.
According to United Illuminating, both Fairfield and Bridgeport officials also asked about an underground alternative – an idea company officials say they’ve analyzed and rejected as costly, time-consuming, and at odds with the state Department of Transportation.
By law, the towns have no power to reject a utility project like this latest proposal by United Illuminating – that’s a matter for the state’s Siting Council – but they can ask to be “intervenors” in the hearings process, allowing town lawyers to question company officials directly.
Kupchick claimed in an October newsletter to Fairfield residents that she first learned the town could intervene in August, and responded immediately. But based on documents provided by United Illuminating, both Kupchick and Ganim were informed by the Siting Council in April that they could apply for intervenor status.
“Municipal officials may request Party or Intervenor Status to actively participate in the evidentiary session, present oral statements to the Council during the public comment session or submit written statements to the Council at any time up to 30 days after the close of the evidentiary record,” the April 13 letter informed town officials.
Asked about the letter, Kupchick said she did not recall the letter from the council. But she also pointed out that the letter described a project along the state rail corridor with no mention of the proposed easements on private property – a detail she said she was not aware of until late summer.
“Bottom line, the town was told the project would remain inside DOT right of way and it wasn’t what came out later,” she said.
In the October newsletter Kupchick also revisited past communications to local residents related to the project – a Dec. 2022 post on the town website about a public meeting with the company, a Jan. 2023 Facebook post about a meeting, a Jan. 2023 news release describing the project, and a July 2023 release about the first council hearing.
Upping the involvement
In a phone call on Friday, newly-elected First Selectman Bill Gerber said he would be “upping” Fairfield’s involvement in the application process, and said he has hired new legal counsel to represent the town in the hearings.
“In the first phase of this, the burden was really shouldered by the other intervenors,” Gerber said of groups like the Ozyck’s nonprofit.
Bridgeport did not apply for intervenor status until Nov. 22, when the city told the council that they wanted to prevent an “unreasonable impact” on low-income and minority residents, future economic development and coastal resources.
The council voted unanimously to accept Bridgeport’s request at a Tuesday hearing, and the city’s attorney suggested a possible solution by burying the wires in Bridgeport alone.
Asked about the city’s late response by phone on Friday, Ganim said he wasn’t fully aware of the impacts until he was approached by some concerned Black Rock residents.
“It’s one of these things that didn’t really come to anyone’s real attention until, thankfully, Fairfield residents raised the issue,” Ganim said. “But it’s even more impactful on Bridgeport.”
Ganim said he has since talked to local advocacy groups like the Black Rock NRZ about the application, and is very concerned about how it may impact the densely-populated neighborhoods along the railroad in Bridgeport.
To date, the Siting Council has held five hearings. The next hearing is scheduled for Dec. 12 at 2 p.m.