Fairfield Appeals Transmission Line Compromise Calling it a ‘Blatant Due Process Violation’

Catenaries near Greens Farm, just west of proposed changes in Fairfield and Bridgeport (CT Examiner)


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FAIRFIELD – On Tuesday the town announced it would appeal the state approval of a compromise plan to relocate United Illuminating transmission lines along the Northeast Corridor through Fairfield and Bridgeport. The state’s Siting Council approved the $322 million project without a final design in place.

In March 2023, United Illuminating applied to the Siting Council to relocate aging transmission lines to the southern extent of the Metro-North corridor, but rather than approving that plan, which sparked a well-attended protest and opposition from officials like Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Rep. Jim Himes, State Sen. Tony Hwang and State Rep. Jennifer Leeper, the council instead approved a compromise on the condition that the company provides a detailed site plan before construction.

Dubbed the Hannon-Morissette alternative, the council’s plan – which passed in February with four members in favor, one opposed and one abstaining – would construct 105- to 110- foot monopoles on the north side of the railroad, increase needed easements on nearby properties from about 19 acres to about 22 acres, and increase needed tree clearing from 6.5 acres to 7 acres. The compromise would also add about $67 million to the project cost.

But on Tuesday, the Town of Fairfield announced that it had filed an appeal naming the Siting Council and United Illuminating as defendants.

“We are committed to fight for the rights of our community. Ratepayers as well as residents have a right to understand and weigh in on the impacts of potentially having new giant monopoles erected in their backyards,” said First Selectman Bill Gerber in a Tuesday press release.

Gerber, who proposed a $200,000 increase to Fairfield’s 2024-25 legal budget to fight the United Illuminating project, outlined the town’s two key arguments: the council has failed to consider the environmental impacts, and has deprived residents from their right to participate in the approval process.

Lacking documentation?

In the new 15-page appeal, attorneys for the town argued that it is still unclear exactly how the alternative will impact Fairfield.

Without a formal application for the Hannon-Morissette alternative, the appeal said, the town doesn’t know where the monopoles will be located, the number of monopoles required, the impact on residential, commercial and historic properties, and the impact on the local environment.

Along with the unknown effects, the town claimed that United Illuminating has yet to demonstrate a real need for the transmission line project. 

While the utility company has repeatedly stated that it must upgrade its 60-year-old equipment to avoid structural failures, reduce service delays and prepare for future demand, the town argued that United Illuminating did not submit sufficient evidence backing those claims.

Under the Public Utility Environmental Standards Act, the council must balance the public need for a public utility project with the need to protect the surrounding environment and minimize damage to scenic, historic and recreational values. But by approving the alternative without a clear need or updated environmental assessments, the town argued, the council violated that charge.

“We believe that the Siting Council has failed to meet its obligation to satisfy the requirement to balance the alleged public need with the environmental impact, and has done a disservice to our residents,” said Gerber.

A ‘blatant’ violation

Together with a cost benefit analysis, Fairfield is arguing that state and federal law require the council to ensure that abutters of a utility project are notified of a proposed plan prior to approving it.

United Illuminating officials were required to notify the public of their initial plans to the south of the corridor – though many have disputed the sufficiency of those efforts. But now that the project has been relocated to the north, lawyers for the town are arguing that the abutters to the north must be afforded the same opportunities to comment and intervene. 

“There was never any prior notice to any of the abutting property owners to the north of the Metro-North Railroad tracks that UI may be constructing new transmission lines to the north, nor did UI provide any evidence of the impacts of this route, including whether property owners may now be facing permanent easements,” Gerber said. “This is a blatant due process violation.”

By not properly noticing neighbors to the north of the Hannon-Morissette alternative, the Town of Fairfield is arguing that the council violated numerous state laws in addition to the Fourteenth Amendment.

In addition to the town’s filing, Andrea Ozyck, co-founder of the grassroots group Sasco Creek Neighbors Environmental Trust Inc., told CT Examiner that the trust will be filing its own appeal of the council decision on Tuesday.

Asked for United Illuminating’s response to the appeal, spokesperson ​​Sarah Wall Fliotsos told CT Examiner on Tuesday that the company will continue to develop its new plan regardless.

“The basis of the appeal is regarding the CSC’s decision on the Fairfield to Congress project. While the legal process is still unfolding, we remain focused on designing a project that fulfills our commitment to deliver safe and reliable power in the form of replacing aged infrastructure, fortifying the grid for increasing electrification demands and allowing for much-needed upgrades to the CTDOT rail corridor,” Wall Fliotsos said. “At each step of the process, we will work to advance the benefits and value to the community while minimizing costs borne by New England ratepayers and mitigating adverse impacts on the community and environment.” 

According to United Illuminating officials, the council’s alternative will delay their initial estimated service date of May 2028.

Connecticut Siting Council Executive Director Melanie Bachman did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.

This story has been edited to correct cost and easement estimates of the alternative plan