As I See It: A dim view of selectmen’s rejection of solar-panel project
Published 5:11 am, Friday, December 4, 2015
The Board of Selectmen, at its meeting on Wednesday, voted on the proposal to construct solar-energy carports at the Fairfield rail station parking lot. The outcome of their vote is undoubtedly on the front page of the paper. I am a strong supporter of the project, so my impression of the selectmen’s choices was colored by my own bias. They could have: approved the project in a bipartisan show of leadership, vision, fiscal and environmental responsibility; rejected the project, caving in to the flimsiest of NIMBY objections and/or behind-the-scenes political pressure, at the expense of the town’s budget and environment, or found a way to kick the can down the road.
This project didn’t just spring up recently. Over two years ago, it was launched with a presentation to the Parking Authority by Scott Thompson, the tireless chairman of the Clean Energy Task Force (I am a member), and Ed Boman, the assistant director of public works, who has been a champion of green energy installations that are already saving Fairfield $2.4 million per year in energy costs. After exhaustive scrutiny, the Parking Authority approved the project unanimously. The next step in the approval process was the Board of Selectmen.
Here’s a quick overview of the project. Carports with solar-panel roofs would be constructed over two-thirds of the spaces at the commuter lot. A solar power vendor would build the carports at no cost to the town and then sell the clean solar electricity they produce back to the town at a discounted rate over a twenty-year term. This would provide 90 percent of the electricity for Tomlinson Middle School, saving the town at least $70,000 a year in electricity costs. The proximity of the parking lot to Tomlinson Middle school offers a unique opportunity to solarize a town facility that is a major user of electricity. At the 20-year point, the town would be able to either extend the lease, purchase the installation, or direct the vendor to take it down.
In addition to the indisputable financial and environmental benefits, many hundreds of commuters would have the year-round benefit of parking spots protected from the elements. The carports would pose no obstacle to plowing or repaving as necessary.
Of course, whenever there’s a public project bigger than a fire hydrant, the NIMBY’s will come out of the woodwork, and this project was no exception. This time they came from Mosswood Condominiums just to the north of the parking lot, led by Jamie Millington, a Mosswood resident and chairman of the Republican Town Committee. They were ready to pounce, but they didn’t have much to pounce with. Without any credible financial or environmental objections to raise, they resorted to NIMBY arguments, to wit: the carports wouled be as ugly as the Milford truck stop on I-95, or at best, like the carports at the Rec Center; they would detract from the charm of the parking lot and station house; they would adversely affect Mosswood property values.
Of course, the carports would have looked nothing like the Milford truck stop. The design of the commuter lot carports was different from the Rec Center carports. The Fairfield commuter parking lot is, um, actually not charming or attractive, and the old station house, a quaint landmark now but a radical statement of progress in the 19th century, will still be plainly visible, as will the quaint tangle of power lines that have passed over the station house for many decades. Only a few Mosswood residents can see the parking lot or the station house, and only from their second-floor bedrooms.
Project supporters prepared to come to the Board of Selectmen meeting ready for a debate, but it became clear earlier in the day that the proposal was dead or arrival — before a single public comment, pro or con, was made at the meeting, the selectmen made it clear that they were voting it down. Several rationales were offered, one of which, by newly elected Selectman Chris Tymniak, being to kill this idea and think rather of a multi-story garage on the site.
I wonder how much the Mosswood Condominiums would enjoy a view of that garage instead. Better get your next NIMBY committee ready.
Fairfield has a great record of green projects. It’s supremely disappointing to have passed up a chance to burnish that record and set an example for the state.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "As I See It" column appears periodically. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.