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Is The Solar Field Proposal For Seaside Park A Sweetheart Deal For UI?

February 21st, 2014 · 20 Comments · Development and Zoning

Rendering of solar park overlooking west end of Seaside Park sandwiched by Long Island Sound and Cedar Creek. West End and Black Rock areas below.

Rendering of solar park overlooking west end of Seaside Park sandwiched by Long Island Sound and Cedar Creek. West End and Black Rock areas below.

Longtime Bridgeport resident Phil Smith, who directed several voter-approved revisions to the City Charter including strengthening the Parks Commissions authority, writes the city’s proposed agreement with United Illuminating to place a solar field at Seaside Park looks good on the surface, but when you break down what it means to the city financially and logistically the deal is fraught with risks and provides a sweetheart arrangement for the utility. Smith shares his observations, with link to proposed lease below:

At first glance the proposal to allow the United Illuminating Company to locate a solar facility on the site of the former city landfill looked like a project I could support. It would recycle vacant and unused city property, generate income for the city and add additional solar energy to the region’s electric grid. All good things.

However, questions about the legal status of property, the Finch administration’s handling of the project, the lack of significant revenue to the city, and a sweetheart lease with UI have all led me to oppose the solar energy project, at least as it now exists.

No sooner had Mayor Finch and UI officials unveiled the proposed project than questions began being raised about the legal status of the property. Was it or was it not city parkland? For Bridgeport, that’s more than a trivial question.

There is a reason why they call Bridgeport “The Park City.” It has a long history of a strong municipal park system, including, as the mayor likes to point out, some parks designed by legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Sadly, it also has a history of politicians making bad decisions about the use of that parkland, including the city’s decision in the late 1960s to sell a portion of the Olmsted-designed Beardsley Park to the State for what is now Route 25. As a result, Bridgeporters tend to take a dim view of anyone proposing to use parkland for non-park purposes.

Determining whether the former landfill was in fact parkland shouldn’t have been difficult, requiring little more than a good title search. But Finch administration officials chose not to follow that route, perhaps because they knew, or suspected, what the answer would be. Over the last several months the answer to the question “Is it parkland?” has appeared, at various times, to be yes, no and maybe.

Members of the Board of Park Commissioner have said that, before they acted on the proposed lease, they were told it was parkland and their approval of the lease was required. In the wake of the Park Board’s rejection of the lease, administration officials have contended the former landfill was not parkland and the Park Board’s vote was simply advisory.

It suffices to say the uncertainty about the property and the Park Board’s rejection of the proposed lease cast a cloud over the project.

One of the principal arguments in favor of the project has been the claim it would generate additional revenue to the city totaling about $7 million over the 20-year lease term, or about $350,000 a year. Not a great deal of money. But it’s worse than that.

According to the proposed lease submitted to the City Council, UI will only pay the city $150,000 per year, or about $3 million over the 20-year lease term. In reality the city is unlikely to see even that much revenue. That’s because the lease also allows UI to deduct any personal property taxes associated with the new facility from its lease payment.

Some have blamed the extremely low lease payment on the State’s Public Utilities Control Authority or PUCA, which regulates state utilities, and which has sought to limit the costs UI incurs in connection with the project. The answer is simple. The city’s obligation is to set a rental that is fair to its taxpayers and residents, not to subsidize ratepayers or shareholders in other communities. If United illuminating and/or the PUCA think the city’s price is too high they are free to locate the facility elsewhere. Personally, I doubt they’d find a better offer.

Then there are the issues that arise from the fact the proposed facility will be located on a closed landfill. The draft lease requires the city, not UI, to bear any costs or claims resulting to UI employees working in and around the new facility. For a city that is essentially self-insured, that exposure could be catastrophic. UI is making the decision to locate the solar facility on the former landfill and it, not the city, should bear the risks associated with that choice.

Almost every page of the draft lease includes one or more provisions that favor United Illuminating at the expense of the city. A full listing would take more than space permits, but here are a few samples:

• The tenant (UI), and only the tenant, has the power to terminate the lease before the end of its 20-year term. There appears to be no penalty for an early termination.

• The tenant, and only the tenant, has the right to determine whether to exercise either or both of the five-year extensions beyond the initial contract term. If UI wants to extend the agreement beyond the initial term the City of Bridgeport appears to be required to go along.

• The lease appears to give UI the authority to run utility wires over and under Seaside Park, at its sole discretion.

• At the end of the lease term UI appears to have the option of abandoning its generating facilities in place, leaving the city to deal with the abandoned facility and any environmental consequences associated with it.

I could go on for pages but the provisions cited give a pretty good idea of how one-sided the lease agreement is.

Finally, there is the Finch administration’s management of the project, which hardly inspires confidence. Like last year’s airport safety project, the administration’s description of the project, how it will work, the costs involved and the approvals required have changed so often, no prudent person would rely on their representations.

In the final analysis, a good project requires more than a good idea. It requires planning, management and execution, none of which have been apparent in this case. Despite what might have been a good idea, I can’t support this project.

Link to proposed lease agreement including City Councilman Rick Torres’ notations here

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20 Comments so far ↓

  • James Louloudes

    Seaside Park Solar farm and I believe it should be re-voted on by the Parks Commission with some changes that need to be added to the agreement if the committee should vote approval on the uses of a city park for a solar farm.
    The money the city received should go into a solar bank for future city green energy projects, the funds from the solar bank would be used to finance green projects such as wind, solar and fuel cell projects in the city of Bridgeport. They would be low-interest loans on these future project with the moneys from these projects going back into the solar bank for new future green energy projects.
    The solar farm should be reevaluated every five years with the charges in technology so when there are more efficient solar panels that produce more watts per panel the footprint of the solar farm could be reduced but still maintain the same five megawatts output, but with a smaller footprint of solar panels.
    Project Labor Agreement known as a “PLA” with the building trades making sure local labor from Bridgeport would be hired first to work on the project as they are available. This would provide local workers on the project a good living wage.
    The Fuel Cell part of the project should be given to a Connecticut Company that manufactures the fuel cells in Connecticut unless there is a great technology difference in the fuel cells from an out-of-state source.
    We cannot keep using the atmosphere as one giant garbage can dumping pollution into the environment anytime we want to and expect nothing to happen in the future. Using the park as a temporary starting point is a shared sacrifice I believe we need to make for a cleaner environment in the future.

    • Sheepthrills

      FYI, if you had taken the time to attend the Parks Commission meeting, you would have heard the project is not anticipated to bring any jobs to Bridgeport. But it’s nice to know you are willing to share the sacrifice in a city other than the one in which you reside.

      • Bond Girl

        Or even better yet, turn your focus to Fairfield. What’s the matter, not enough opportunity to fatten up your bank account in your own town? Silenzio!

    • Jennifer Buchanan

      Jim, over many years of shared breakfasts at Harborview Market I have learned much about energy from our discussions. As a union electrician you have on the front line experience building and understanding many types of power plants. You are correct, we must start somewhere, however in this case it’s not on the landfill section of the city park. As Phil points suggest, find another location.

  • Harvey Weintraub

    Slowly the facts are starting to come out, it makes sense now why Finch is trying to push this through quickly. Obviously he had to know how favorable this lease is to UI, the only thing I could think of for why he is willing to go forward even though it is not in the best interest of the city is for personal gain of some kind, whether it’s paying back favors or maybe even future opportunities for employment for himself, who knows, but something is definitely rotten here.
    At this point it will be interesting to see if he backs off a bit, knowing the facts are leaking out, or does he keep on looking to get this passed. I bet the backroom meetings between Finch, Anastasi and McCarthy are comical, each trying to come up with ideas to get this done.

  • BPT REBEL

    If something stinks you can be sure Finch’s buddy and future boss Pimpanelli is involved somehow.

  • hope I can sell my house

    The winner is UI and any sweetheart deal the useless 20+-year hot airbag BRBC president has made for himself and friends. (How dare he speak at the city council meeting when he lives in Trumbull and has done NOTHING for Bridgeport during his tenure?) Taxpayers lose big, non taxpayer-park users lose big, ratepayers lose via surcharge, and the city loses in every aspect. No one gains anything except UI. Rates will not go down, but will be raised to pay for and support this fiasco. We need a lawyer who actually knows the law and represents the people.

  • Sheepthrills

    Another problem with the lease is it gives UI the right to make significant changes to the nature of the installation including increases in height, ambient heat and noise. The city may advise UI of its concerns, but the lease states “For the avoidance of doubt Landlord shall not have the right to approve authorize and/or otherwise consent to any Fundamental Alteration and Tenant shall have no obligation to notify Landlord of any reconstruction relocation or expansion of a Generating Facility that requires a Permit or other action by a Governmental Authority.” We all know how much those governmental authorities are looking out for the citizens’ best interests.

  • Jennifer Buchanan

    Well said Mr. Smith, well said.

  • Andrew C Fardy

    Mr. James Louloudes, your interest in this project couldn’t come from the fact you are a Fairfield resident and electrical contractor? You talk about a PLA or project labor agreement creating jobs in Bridgeport. Really? How many union electricians live in Bridgeport? How many union Iron workers live in Bridgeport? How many union Masons and Carpenters live in Bridgeport?
    PLA’s are the way politicians pay back the construction unions for their financial support.
    Mr. Louloudes, where is the shared sacrifice? What are you and the residents of Fairfield sacrificing? I’ll answer that for you. NOTHING, NADA, ZIP POINT SQUAT.
    I suggest you lobby your representatives in Fairfield to take on this monster.

  • Jimfox

    The UI Company is nothing more than a bunch of cruel and heartless thugs, who have pulled the electric meters on 80-year-old grandmothers in the dead of winter. I know because they would call me and I would jump them back on.
    This project will cost this city and taxpayers millions of dollars and get back nothing in return. It’s a lose, lose for this city.
    The liability for the this city is unfathomable, someone will get hurt or killed on this methane field we call a landfill.
    Without a hold harmless agreement in this contract we may be paying someone for the rest of their life. Any city attorney worth his salt would never agree to sign this contract without an HHA first and foremost. The UI made sure they had an HHA in place, so who’s project is this anyway? The taxpayers?

  • charlie

    Put this boondoggle in Fairfield, New Canaan, Greenwich or Darien. Stay the hell out of the Park City!!!

  • Bridgeporteur

    Finch’s fan club from the suburbs had a lot of nerve coming in and with faces strongly inferring we are NIMBYs. Let’s make the playing field level first and include us in your regional planning associations, eliminate your two-acre zoning and the recent proposal to make a Litchfield to Berkshire passenger train service. We are Bridgeport and we have EIOBY (Everything In Our Back Yard). Why don’t you put a solar array next to Penfield and make Finch your first selectman? You want it both ways!

  • Hector A. Diaz

    Hey has anyone seen Ballsy? When you do tell him the challenge slate Line C in Black Rock/West Side 130th hasn’t taken ONE CENT FROM ANYONE, A N Y O N E!!! WE ARE FUNDING OURSELVES! I WILL CONTINUE TO POST THIS UNTIL I HEAR FROM BALLSY, maybe he/she is at the fundraiser being thrown by our opposing slate, if he is, he should note what individuals are giving to their campaign, it is public knowledge for those who want to look it up on the Secretary of the State website, take a look.

  • Mojo

    *** This UI deal is not about Bpt, it’s about future personal gain for a certain group and individuals. Whether it goes to the City Council or back again to the Parks Comm. and even a Public Hearing (which won’t happen), it should be rejected at this time! ***

  • Joel Gonzalez

    LET IT BE KNOWN THAT VOTES FOR LINE B, ARE VOTES FOR BILL FINCH.

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