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