Sunday, July 27, 2014

Seaside Solar Plan Gets Another Look

BRIDGEPORT -- The Connecticut Siting Council is heading to Seaside Park this summer.

But unlike the visitors who head there for swimming, sunbathing, picnics and sporting events, this trip is all business.

The utility regulatory body's members on Thursday agreed to hold a public hearing in Bridgeport on United Illuminating's plan to, with Mayor Bill Finch's enthusiastic cooperation, erect 9,000 solar panels atop a landfill adjacent to Seaside Park.

A pleased Councilman Enrique Torres, R-130, called the Siting Council's announcement "huge."

He and other critics have complained that the plan industrializes historic Seaside Park. Having failed this winter to keep the Parks Commission and City Council from embracing the idea to lease the former dump to UI, opponents appealed to the siting authorities for another opportunity to plead their case.

"UI argued no hearing was necessary since the locals approved it," Torres said. "The Siting Council disagreed. It gives us an opportunity to argue our case once again."

"Bullish investment"

The nine-person Siting Council is charged with reviewing utility projects and balancing the need for adequate, reliable, reasonably priced services with protecting the environment and scenic, historic and recreational assets.

"We did get numerous requests from members of the public," said Melanie Bachman, the Siting Council's acting executive director. "Given the size of the project and the public interest, the council in its discretion decided it would be wise to hold a public hearing on the matter."

Bachman noted siting officials have held similar hearings for UI solar projects in Somers and East Lyme.

A date still has to be chosen. Bachman said the visit would be several hours, beginning in the early afternoon with a visit to the landfill for UI to walk council members thorough the plans.

Then an evidentiary hearing will be held during which the council will cross examine UI. The public speaking portion will likely happen around 7 p.m., Bachman said.

A UI spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

Finch spokesman Brett Broesder said in a statement that the solar array was thoroughly vetted at the local level and is a "bullish investment in Bridgeport's future" that will create jobs and cleaner energy.

"This project will help make Bridgeport a place where our kids and grandkids will choose to live, work and raise their families," Broesder said.

Broesder said the mayor will make a personal appearance at the Siting Council's hearing.

While the lease deal was a victory in Finch's efforts to make Bridgeport a leader in the green economy, the solar project's approval proved embarrassing for the Democratic administration, which was caught off guard by some of the opposition and wound up having to work harder than anticipated last winter to explain the lease and push it through.

At one point the Parks Commission voted the proposal down, leading the City Attorney's office to subsequently make the controversial declaration that the group's vote was "non-binding" and could be ignored by the City Council.

Instead Finch had the mayoral-appointed parks board vote again, producing the desired lease approval.

Then the mostly Democratic Council voted 15-5 in mid-March to finalize the 20-year lease with UI.

"I thought this was put behind us and we were moving forward with this historic solar project," said Onte Johnson, head of the city's Sierra Club branch, about Thursday's Siting Council decision. "We will be there for the hearing and testify and give our support, as we have in the past. We still think this project is very important."

Torres was optimistic the opposition's case will be viewed more objectively by the Siting Council than by local boards.

Asked if he was willing to live with a Siting Council decision to endorse the solar array, Torres said no.

"I am not willing to concede this facility, at this location, ever," he said.


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