Power lines spark summer of discontent in area communities

CONNECTICUT - This could be the summer of discontent for homeowners living along the 69-mile route of the power line upgrade project between Middletown and Norwalk.

With work crews pushing to keep the project on schedule to be completed in the second half of 2009, the volume of complaints in places like Orange and Wallingford is attracting the attention of state lawmakers, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and the Connecticut Siting Council, the agency charged with determining the routes of new utility lines and overseeing their construction.

"This is not a case of residents overreacting or being overly sensitive," Blumenthal said. "This stretch of the line has been unusually problematic." Problems with construction of the line have already resulted in one lawsuit by an Orange couple against Connecticut Light & Power and its partner in the project, the United Illuminating Co.

Clement and Georgianna Passariello of High Plains Road filed their lawsuit in March, claiming the utilities are abusing an easement on their property by creating a gravel road on their land and uprooting trees. They are seeking more than $15,000 in damages. The handling of the construction project, which is designed to improve the reliability of the power network to New Haven and Fairfield counties, has also prompted legislation by two Wallingford state representatives, Mary Fritz and Mary Mushinsky. Their bill concerns replacing vegetation removed from rights-of-way during utility construction projects.

The legislation is awaiting a state Senate vote as lawmakers rush to complete their work before the session ends June 6. CL&P has said it deals with requests for remediation of damage on a case-by-case basis.

But Derek Phelps, executive director of the Siting Council, said the legislation would give his agency a tool to require remediation of problems associated with such projects. "I think the language would be helpful in terms of bringing them (CL&P) to the table," Phelps said.

Blumenthal agrees with Phelps. "The present law provides few if any enforceable remedies, so our authority is severely limited," Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal and Phelps say the reason Orange has become a flash point for discontent over the way construction is being handled is the way the community has developed since the 1940s, the last time a power line project of this magnitude came through the own.

"The configuration of the properties in Orange put homes closer (to the power line right of way) than in any other community," Blumenthal said. "There is a housing density (in Orange) that is unique when compared to the rest of the overhead portion of the route," Phelps said. Frank Poirot, a CL&P spokesman, agreed that having homes situated so close to the path of the project has made the company's job more difficult.

But he said the problem is not limited to Orange. "To this day there is ground being broken on new homes within the right of way," said Poirot. "There were two new foundations poured on the west side of High Hill Road in Wallingford just last week. The west side of the road runs parallel to the power l ne and they (the homes that are being built) are set a good ways back from the road."

Although having homes so close to the right of way makes completing the project while minimizing damage to homeowners' properties extremely difficult, Poirot said the company has no desire to seek legislation that would prohibit development within a certain distance of power lines.

"In a state where developable land is getting harder and harder to find, who are we to step into this process?" Poirot said. "That's strictly within the jurisdiction of the towns and their planning agencies. It's the responsibility of the local officials to determine they want their towns to grow and develop." But as former Orange Selectwoman Trish Pearson is quick to point out, it's often difficult for town officials with varying levels of expertise to have the vision and political courage necessary to keep residential developers from building so close to power lines.

"When these rights of way were granted, this was all farmland," Pearson said. "But in the ensuing 70 years, the farmers who owned this land sold off these properties, and homes were allowed to be built with rights of way running right through backyards."

And when construction contractors show up on these rights of way, Pearson said the 65 residents who live along them face potentially devastating consequences. "We've got people who are getting a foot of water in their basements who weren't getting it before" work on the power line started, she said. Pearson faces the potential for problems of her own at the end of this year when CL&P's contractors begin working in her back yard.

Heavy machinery that is used to erect the towers on which the upgraded power line will go will move into her back yard around early December and sit perilously close to or maybe even on top of her specially designed septic system. If the weight of the construction vehicles is enough to crush the septic system, Pearson would have limited options for dealing with the problem, since there are no public sewer lines in that part of Orange and her front yard has already been used in the past for a septic system. Pearson concedes CL&P has become more responsive in dealing with her and her neighbors' complaints.

"They've hired more people, so instead of leaving a note in your door, they want to meet with you in person, Pearson said. "They graded and reseeded where their equipment has damaged lawns. But the real test is will they come back and do it again on properties where what they did the first time doesn't take."

Even with the added measures CL&P has taken, Pearson said she and her neighbors will forge ahead, doing whatever it takes to make officials at the utility do the necessary restorations. "What we've forcing them to do is now is do what they should have done all along," she said. "It has required constant supervision, constant vigilance.

But we've got to do it because we can't afford not to."


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