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The New York Times: Don’t Try to Put Anything Over on This Town

EXTRACT: Branford has led the opposition against a proposal by Broadwater Energy, a partnership of Shell Oil and TransCanada, to build a floating liquefied natural gas terminal about 10 miles south of Branford in New York State waters.
 
By JAN ELLEN SPIEGEL

JENNIFER ZAMBRANO explains the psyche of her town this way: “What’s right is right, and what’s wrong, Branford will fight.”

The list of wrongs is long these days in this shoreline town of 29,000 about six miles east of New Haven. Issues range from the kind of development pains that many towns feel to two precedent-setting energy projects — Islander East and Broadwater — that Branford has led the charge against.

The town’s tenacity is partly explained by the strength of its neighborhoods, its bouillabaisse of a population and lessons learned from earlier development angst.

But mostly it can be explained by looking out the window of the Stony Creek Market, where Ms. Zambrano finished breakfast one day last month with a group of women who have met there in some configuration nearly every morning for the last 20 years. Stony Creek Harbor in Long Island Sound is visible across the road, as are the closest of the Thimble Islands.

“There’s plenty of fight left,” said Ms. Zambrano, who moved to Branford about five years ago and retired last year after 39 years as a flight attendant with American Airlines.

At a window table, Kathy Zemina, 52, a mother of two who has lived in town with her husband for nearly 12 years, said: “People here, they just love this place, they love their home and they’ve seen too much change. They see the beauty in what’s left, and they just are going to do anything to preserve that.”

That devotion has fueled a series of battles against development projects and has manifested itself most prominently in the town’s opposition to Islander East and Broadwater.

Islander East is a proposed natural gas pipeline that would run under the Long Island Sound from Branford to the eastern end of Long Island. It would surface in that part of Stony Creek Harbor visible from the market.

In the nearly six years since it was proposed, Branford residents have consistently filled public meetings to oppose it, and state regulators have refused to issue permits. Duke Energy and KeySpan, which are proposing the project, had their appeal heard in federal court this month.

On another front, Branford has led the opposition against a proposal by Broadwater Energy, a partnership of Shell Oil and TransCanada, to build a floating liquefied natural gas terminal about 10 miles south of Branford in New York State waters. Since the project was proposed two years ago, Branford residents have repeatedly turned out at meetings to oppose it, most notably in January, when more than 700 residents packed the high school auditorium in a session that went past midnight.

“The spirit was palpable,” said Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has worked with Branford in opposing both projects. “It isn’t just a small or select group — it’s the town that feels very strongly.”

Residents can only speculate on what accounts for their activism, but there is consistency to opinions.

“I could be trite and say we’re just Yankees,” said Peter Brainerd, 74, standing just inside the garage his father opened in 1920, some 60 years after the family arrived in Branford. “The attitude of the town seems to continue to be independent, feisty and fighting big business coming in and just taking advantage.”

Mr. Brainerd and others say all the battles are part of a larger war: defending what residents want their town to be. That vision, for many, was shaped by an explosion of condominiums in the 1970s that pushed the town into rapid growth, which many now regret and that made them wary of new projects.

Nearly everyone also cited Branford’s diversity as a unifying force — an unusually smooth blend of working-class families, many of whom came as stonecutters years ago, wealthier people who now populate much of the shoreline, and other groups in between.

“I think that’s our power and where all our strength is,” said Anthony DaRos, 64, a stonemason, lifelong resident and former first selectman. “The people of Branford are probably one of the most intelligent electorates.”

Most also agree that Branford’s neighborhoods, like Stony Creek, while insular, are critical organizationally.

“I think Branford is one of the few places on the planet where everybody is ready to go with a phone call,” said Lonnie Reed, an independent filmmaker who has helped organize opposition to the two energy projects and, as a Democrat, is a member of the majority on the representative town meeting. “One phone call: ‘Hey we need you.’ ”

While some admit that the parade of crises was wearing, no one expects Branford to give up.

“Rather than at a breaking point, Branford is probably more galvanized and unified than it was five years ago,” said John E. Opie, 59, an engineer who is a lifelong resident and a Republican selectman. “I don’t see any weakening in our spirit. I think it’s toughened us.”

At the Stony Creek Market, the breakfast regulars couldn’t agree more. One of them, Nina Smith, has lived in Branford for 40 years.

“You’ve got a lot of smart people here and a lot of dedicated people who will fight for what they believe in,” she said.

Published: April 22, 2007

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