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Thursday, April 26 News

Why Darien but not Fairfield? Rest stop neighbors rally to demand safety barriers

Dozens of residents, along with town and state officials, rallied Saturday to build support for the installation of safety barriers along Interstate 95 rest areas near Exit 22.

The 90-minute rally, held on Round Hill Road near the off-ramp of I-95's Exit 22 on the northbound side, was punctuated by motorists honking their horns as they drove by.

Sarah Essig, of Hillcrest Road, said she's concerned visitors to the renovated rest areas -- expected to reopen in November on the northbound side and in January on the southbound side -- 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 in Tomlinson Middle School, Roger Ludlowe Middle School and Fairfield Ludlowe High School could easily walk there from their campuses, all on Unquowa Road. "We don't want our kids going there," she said.

State Rep. Kim Fawcett, D-Fairfield, 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.

Safety barriers, which residents said could be 8- or 10-feet tall, also could help keep vehicle exhaust on I-95 from entering neighborhoods. "Sound barriers are typically very tall, 20 to 30 feet. We're not asking for sound barriers. We're asking for safety barriers," Fawcett said.

Jackie Reilly, of Papermill Lane, which is on the opposite said of I-95 from Hillcrest Road, said she'd be happy with just a berm and trees as a barrier. "I'm looking for anything," she said.

First Selectman Michael Tetreau and several residents noted that barriers had been installed in Darien near its renovated I-95 rest stops, and questioned why they couldn't also be installed in Fairfield. "Basically, the question now, simply put, is, `Why does Darien deserve them more than Fairfield?' " Tetreau said.

Tetreau said state Department of Transportation officials quoted a cost of $1 million a mile for sound barriers, but that neighbors and elected officials are willing to have safety barriers instead, which should cost less since they wouldn't be as tall as sound barriers.

Paul Landino of Fairfield, president of Project Service LLC, the developer, said in a phone interview after the rally that Darien has a barrier on only one side of I-95 and that the barrier was part of the project from the beginning. He said it was installed, in part, because wetlands are nearby the northbound rest area and a study had been done ahead of time.

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Landino said state funding is not available for safety barriers in Fairfield and that it would be more complicated to erect them by Exit 22 because the entrance and exit ramps from I-95 are next to the rest stops. He said his company doesn't have jurisdiction on the ramp side of the highway and that barriers couldn't be installed between the ramps and service plazas because it would be too confusing to motorists.

Landino said he's always been willing to work with residents who live alongside the highway to install fences and plant trees to buffer their properties from the rest areas. He said barriers in Fairfield were never part of the project to renovate the rest areas and that the town's state representatives "should have been on top of it" when the plans were being developed.

"We've always been willing to work with fences and trees," Landino said. "I'll work with the neighbors and we have to date. We're trying to be constructive and positive about it."

Landino, along with DOT officials, have been invited to a meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday to talk with neighbors and town officials and answer their questions. The meeting is scheduled to take place in the Education Center, 501 Kings Highway East.

The effort to get safety barriers along Fairfield's rest stops was "an uphill battle,." Tetreau said.

"It's a tight economy. There's not a lot of money," he said. "It's kind of an add-on to the project, which is part of why it's an uphill battle ... We're not fighting over a pocket of money. We're fighting to put money in the pocket."

State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield, said, "The state doesn't have the money. We were hoping the developer would include it in their costs."

Essig said safety barriers by Fairfield's rest stops "should have been in their plans from the beginning."

"They should have planned to give us the safety barriers," Essig said.