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Wednesday, April 25 News

Neighbors press drive for I-95 rest stop barriers as legislators feud

Elected officials are gathering information to make the case for installing safety barriers at the local Interstate 95 rest stops under renovation by Exit 22.

The 10- to 12-foot-high barriers, which residents contend are necessary to isolate the rest stops from three nearby schools and to help prevent vehicles' exhaust from blanketing neighborhoods, were not included in renovation plans for the rest stops when a contract was signed between the state Department of Transportation and Project Service, LLC, the developer, in 2009.

Town and local legislators nonetheless are supporting neighbors' campaign for barriers at the Fairfield rest stops, pointing out that a sound barrier was part of renovations for an I-95 rest stop in Darien. That sound barrier, though, was included in the DOT's request for proposals in advance of the contract.

The local lobbying effort capped a week during which neighbors of the local rest stops staged a rally to demand that barriers be built next to the facilities on both sides of I-95, as well triggering a public feud between two local state legislators over who apparently can claim more credit in pushing for the barriers.

Neither DOT officials nor Paul Landino of Fairfield, president of Project Service, LLC, attended a meeting Wednesday night in the Education Center on Kings Highway East that was called by state Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-132.

Barriers not in approved plans

But James Redeker, commissioner of the DOT, and Landino said in a letter dated Wednesday to First Selectman Michael Tetreau, Fairfield's state representatives and neighbors of the rest stops that the renovated rest stops in Fairfield "do not include construction of `sound barriers.' "

"These barriers have never been part of the project scope for these facilities, particularly since no expansion or changes were made along the back of the properties," the letter says in part. "The philosophy and practice Project Service, LLC uses for all of the service plazas to date is a commitment to listen and work with abutting property owners individually from design through final construction ... We will continue to utilize this same approach at the I-95 Fairfield northbound and southbound plazas."

But Kathy Kaminski, one of a dozen residents who attended Wednesday's meeting, said planting trees is not an effective way to shield the rest stops. "They're not going to prevent people from wandering from the rest areas into your neighborhood or children from going to the rest areas" from nearby Tomlinson Middle School, Roger Ludlowe Middle School and Fairfield Ludlowe High School, she said.

Connecticut Audubon's Birdcraft Sanctuary, next to Tomlinson, also wants a barrier, saying the renovated rest stops would harm air quality and the aesthetic value of the sanctuary and increase public safety issues and noise, according to its website.

Sarah Essig, of Hillcrest Road, discounted the value of a chain-link fence, saying the barriers should be solid. She said Fairfield's rest stops were unique because "there's no other service plaza that's right in the middle of a community," she said.

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Tetreau agreed: "This runs right through the heart of our community ... It's running through neighborhoods, it's running next to schools."

In their letter, Redeker and Landino addressed concerns about public safety by saying the renovated rest stops would have "extensive security surveillance systems of the entire site" and office space for State Police. "While State Police staffing levels will certainly not allow a full-time presence, we hope the convenience of these spaces encourage frequent visits and patrolling of the plazas," the letter states.

Could new revenue pay for barriers?

Tetreau said he and state representatives need to better understand how much revenue will be generated by the renovated rest stops in Connecticut because that could be a potential source of funding for safety barriers in Fairfield. He said Fairfield rest stops are the last ones to be rebuilt in the state. Landino said on Saturday that both should be done by January.

Literature distributed at Wednesday's meeting says the state expects to receive $500 million in "economic benefit" from the renovated rest stops.

According to www.privateequityatwork.com, the state expects to receive $250 million in payments during the term of a 35-year revenue sharing agreement with Project Service, LLC. The handouts, as well as the private equity website, says Project Service, LLC -- not the state -- is 100 percent responsible for funding renovations at the 23 rest stops in Connecticut.

Tetreau said it was important for elected officials to know whether that $500 million was incremental revenue or gross revenue. "There's more factual data we need to understand," he said.

Kupchick said elected officials also need to identify how much a safety barrier would cost. She said the DOT previously estimated that a sound barrier would cost $1 million a mile but a safety barrier, which would be much shorter than a sound barrier, shouldn't cost that much.

Other information that needs to be gathered includes how renovations at the Darien rest stops and rest stops on the Merritt Parkway in Fairfield differ from renovations under way at the I-95 rest stops in Fairfield; how many safety-related incidents at Fairfield's I-95 rest stops have occurred, and whether the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's role in the rest stops is over.

Once that and other information is gathered, town officials and state representatives plan to include it in a request for safety barriers that will be sent to the DOT and Project Service, LLC, Kupchick said. "We'll use that data we collect as our argument when we write a letter later," she said.

Tetreau disputed Landino's claim on Saturday that installing safety barriers in Fairfield wouldn't work because they would have to be on the ramp side of the interstate and his company didn't have access to that land. "That's state land," Tetreau said. "Commissioner Redeker has already said he'd be happy to grant access to it."

Tetreau said the federal government owns the ramps but not the land next to them.

Essig said she was worried that once Fairfield's rest stops are completed, the opportunity to install safety barriers will pass, but Tetreau said, "I don't see them as necessarily connected."

Jackie Reilly of Papermill Lane said she was grateful for elected officials' interest. "I feel like at least we have some people behind us. Between Mr. Tetreau and Brenda Kupchick, at least you feel like you have a voice," she said. "You feel like you've got people backing you here."

Neighbors rally for barriers

The Wednesday night meeting followed a rally Saturday off Round Hill Road to build support for the installation of barriers. The 90-minute rally was punctuated by motorists honking their horns as they drove by.

Sarah Essig, who also attend the Saturday event, said she's concerned visitors to the renovated rest areas could easily walk onto the properties of three nearby town schools and the Audubon Birdcraft Museum unless barriers are installed. She cited the case several years ago of a truck driver who stopped at the southbound rest area and walked onto Fairfield Ludlowe High School's track to go running and then entered Ludlowe's weight room.

"We're trying to keep the service plazas separate from our town," Essig said. "The people visiting service plazas aren't here to visit Fairfield."

Rally attendees said the renovated rest areas would have frozen yogurt and sandwich shops that are popular with teenagers, and Essig said students at the three nearby schools could easily walk there from their Unquowa Road campuses. "We don't want our kids going there," she said.

At the rally, state Rep. Kim Fawcett, D-133, said, "It's a much bigger townwide issue than an immediate neighborhood issue."

"With 4,000 children within walking distance of the rest areas every school day, why is that not a priority in keeping this area safe?" Fawcett said.

Kupchick, Fawcett feud

Meanwhile, a war of words erupted Tuesday between Kupchick and Fawcett as Kupchick charged that Fawcett had persuaded DOT officials not to attend Wednesday's meeting for political reasons.

"I'm just very disappointed that my constituents are being deprived of a meeting with the DOT that I worked hard to set up, and I'm just confused as to why Rep. Fawcett would interfere in constituent service I'm doing in my district," Kupchick said. Fawcett, according to Kupchick, apparently wanted to get involved in the issue to win votes in her race for the state Senate seat being vacated by Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, whose five-town district includes Fairfield.

"I can't come up with any other conclusion than Rep. Fawcett was using this issue in a political way, which is unfortunate," said Kupchick.

Fawcett retorted that the meeting "was planned last minute and did not give the neighbors time to organize. Some leaders involved with the project, including myself and First Selectman (Michael) Tetreau, had not been invited, although the invite said we would be in attendance."

Fawcett countered that it was Kupchick who was grandstanding.

Judd Everhart, a DOT spokesman, explained the DOT's decision not to attend by saying the agency's officials believed the Wednesday meeting wasn't convenient for all interested parties and "lacking any confirmation of broad stakeholder participation, it was not clear that the meeting would be a productive forum."

Staff writer Ken Dixon contributed to this report.