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Fairfield residents continue to oppose UI construction

UI is looking to replace the power cables that run along the Metro-North corridor. In this photo, the transmission lines are on the tall white poles.
Molly Ingram
United Illuminating is looking to replace the power cables that run along the Metro-North corridor. In this photo, the transmission lines are on the tall white poles.

A group of Fairfield and Bridgeport residents continue to oppose construction proposals from United Illuminating — as well as the state council that approved the project.

The group, the Sasco Creek Neighbors Environmental Trust (SCNETI), is holding an informational session with lawmakers on Thursday, May 30.

At the heart of the issue is UI’s proposed electricity upgrades.

The company wants to install new monopoles along the Metro-North railroad tracks in Southport, Fairfield and Bridgeport. Initially, they were going to use the south side of the tracks — but Connecticut’s Siting Council, which is responsible for approving power facility and transmission line projects, denied that proposal.

Instead, they told UI to use the north side of the tracks. In doing so, SCNETI co-founder Andrea Ozyck said they approved a project without knowing where the transmission lines would be — and left residents, whose properties may be in the line of construction, out of the conversation.

Fighting on two fronts

The group is fighting on two fronts: with UI to get the company to consider burying the transmission cables and with the Siting Council to get them to change the way they consider and approve construction plans.

SCNETI is concerned that UI would be taking utility easements, which would give them the right to access and alter private property for construction purposes. They, along with the Town of Fairfield and the City of Bridgeport, have filed record appeals against the Siting Council.

“Right now, we have no idea how many poles there will be, how many easements, what size of easements they'll need, which properties will be affected by the easements, how tall the poles will be, we don't know any of that,” Ozyck said. “[We don’t know] whether those poles will be in the wetlands or any of that sort of impact.”

That, Ozyck said, would violate the mission of the Siting Council in “balancing the need for adequate and reliable public utility services at the lowest reasonable cost to consumers with the need to protect the environment and ecology of the state,” according to its website.

“This decision was made based on an option that was never presented as a viable alternative. There are now a group of people on the north side of the tracks who are impacted in a way they weren't going to be impacted before,” Ozyck said. “There are a lot of people that could find themselves with utility easements. And that's a scary thing.”

However, to create and share a construction plan, UI said they need access to the properties that are on the north side of the tracks. They hope to do that and have a design plan by 2025.

UI has defended the construction, saying it’s needed to bring power upgrades to the area. The project has been underway for more than 10 years — this is the fifth and final phase of it.

The company has also said that burying the cables is not a viable option because it would cost more than $1 billion.

“This project serves as a comprehensive solution to several pressing issues, including replacing deteriorating and aging infrastructure, strengthening our resiliency to severe weather events, and aligning with [state Department of Transportation] and [Metro-North Railroad's] rail expansion plans — which have been a priority of the Lamont Administration,” UI spokesperson Sarah Wall Fliotsos said.

“Our current fieldwork in Fairfield is consistent with the work we’ve done in all the communities that preceded them throughout the history of this project. Studying and understanding the conditions and surroundings in the project area helps us develop the most prudent design, which we then share with our customers and regulators. Without completing the fieldwork, we cannot create a thorough plan," she continued. "The same methodology has been used throughout each phase of this ten-year project and shaped the decision to utilize overhead lines in each of these communities, as approved by the Connecticut Siting Council."

“The Fairfield to Congress portion of this reconstruction is critical to completing the comprehensive rebuild program and realizing the full benefits of a strengthened transmission network, both for Fairfield and Bridgeport residents, as well as for all UI customers and millions of people served by ISO-New England.”

A legislative update

Fairfield lawmakers, including State Senator Tony Hwang and State Rep. Jennifer Leeper, are expected to attend an informational town hall on the issue on Thursday, May 30.

“They're going to give an update about where things stand and what they expect to happen over the short term,” Ozyck said. “And then we will also be answering questions and giving a brief legal update on where the appeal stands. Again, we are trying to give people an understanding that we're not giving up this fight."

"We're in this for the long haul, we want to keep advocating for undergrounding. Or, you know, hey, if there happens to be another solution that is acceptable, that doesn't take easements, we're open to that, too," she said.

In the legislative session that ended earlier this month, Hwang and Leeper championed legislation that changes the Siting Council’s process, granting parties and intervenors more rights in the proceedings.

The bill was passed by the House and Senate and is waiting for a signature from Governor Ned Lamont.

“This bill would ensure that when utilities are submitting an application to the Siting Council, they must not only consult the municipal CEO of the city/town the project is located in, but they also must notify the municipality's legislative body, any affected landowners, as well as the state senator and state representative of the project location as well,” Hwang said in testimony to the Judiciary Committee in March.

“The Siting Council recently approved UI's plan ... (with alterations to the original proposal) without fully understanding the overreaching easements over private and town property that would be required for this project, and what environmental effects would result from them. In fact, the changed plan affected properties that are now unable to seek intervenor status,” he said.

Thursday’s meeting is open to the public. A similar meeting held earlier in May drew around 200 people.

It’s at 7:30 p.m. at Roger Ludlowe Middle School in Fairfield.

Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.