Fairfield Fights Transmission Lines, Splits Over Messaging

Fairfield Metro train station (CT Examiner).

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FAIRFIELD — Local Republicans took aim at the tactics used by recently-elected First Selectman Bill Gerber, a Democrat, to fight a plan by United Illuminating to string transmission lines through private property off the existing Metro-North right of way through Bridgeport and Fairfield.

In a Jan. 12 email to Fairfield residents, Gerber told residents that the company’s standard easement form would give United Illuminating the right to install equipment, fill, excavate and clear the land of any structures at any time– claims that Republicans are not disputing.

But accompanying the email was a rendering produced by Sasco Creek Neighbors Environmental Trust Inc., a group opposing the project, that appears to show a 324-year-old house on Pequot Avenue missing significant portion of its structure. 

The rendering was captioned, “The existing Southport property after the proposed seizure of property.”

On Wednesday, former Republican RTM chair Pamela Iacono, who opposes the UI plan, nevertheless urged Gerber to retract the image, calling it “misleading.”

“Unfortunately, it has come to my attention that this image is, in fact, misleading and does not accurately represent the situation,” Iacono wrote. “Using town resources to disseminate inaccurate information is a serious concern that undermines the trust we place in our local government, and in this instance may very well harm our fight against the monopole project proposal.”

Iacono said she had contacted a United Illuminating employee, who told her the simulation was not accurate and that the company would not demolish properties.

A rendering included in the Gerber newsletter (Courtesy of the Town of Fairfield)

But on Thursday, Gerber stood by his use of the image, and questioned Iacono’s intentions.

“It’s really odd of her to be trying to undermine the town on this issue by talking to a company that has not been forthcoming,” said Gerber.

Gerber said that United Illuminating had tried to discredit the rendering during Siting Council hearings, and he was disappointed that Iacono would do same.

“If you’re going to ask UI something that might hurt their ability to do this, they’re going to give you an answer that is going to be disingenuous — to the point that they can be,” he said.

Asked about the imagery on Thursday, Andrea Ozyck, co-founder of Sasco Creek Neighbors Environmental Trust, told CT Examiner that architect David Parker had used professional modeling tools to create an image that would show the degree of encroachment possible under the proposed easements.

“Some of [the easements] extend into the home,” said Ozyck. “It certainly was not meant to imply that UI intends to physically remove a portion of someone’s home. That doesn’t really make a lot of sense. It’s pretty obvious that you can’t leave the back of someone’s house open.”

Ozyck said the intent was not to suggest that the utility would demolish half of a house, but that company could technically remove structures within its easements.

Responding to Iacono’s email, Ozyck said she was shocked by the former official’s “insensitivity,” as many residents and business owners are concerned about looming impacts to their property values.

“It’s sad that we have people in our own town who are minimizing the concerns of these homeowners who are affected by this,” Ozyck said. “And it’s sad that we’re working against each other on something that really is meant for the best interest of our town.”

At a meeting of the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday, Republican Brenda Kupchick further questioned the professionalism of the town’s new communications director – a new position created by Gerber.

“I know there was some concern about some of the communication coming from your communications person that may not be completely accurate. So, I think that we should definitely let professionals be communicating on something of this level,” Kupchick said.

Gerber responded, calling the criticism “unfounded,” adding that his newsletter had been reviewed by legal staff before it was emailed to town residents.

After the meeting, Iacono reiterated that the image was misleading. She said the town had plenty of “disturbing facts” that could have been included in the email, but instead chose sensationalism.

She also took aim at the new communications hire and the legal review.

“His comments also raise critical questions about the endorsement of the ‘very good lawyer’ he says reviewed the newsletter. The administration’s employment of a ‘professional’ communications director loses its purpose when town communications can’t be trusted as factual,” Iacono said. “Mr. Gerber needs to ensure accurate information is disseminated to residents of our town to maintain credibility in our collective and worthy fight against UI’s disastrous monopole project.”

Local officials and residents from both political parties have largely come together to oppose the planned $225 million transmission line project, which would require 19.25 acres of easements, 7 acres of clearing, and the installation of 102 new monopoles.

UI is awaiting a decision by the Connecticut Siting Council determining whether the project can continue.

Asked about the email and imagery, United Illuminating spokesperson Sarah Wall Fliotsos called the email and imagery “misleading” and “inaccurate.”

She also tried to assure local residents that the company would make every effort to accommodate property owner concerns.