Transformers Threaten History

Allan Appel PhotoThree years ago United Illuminating moved its high pole-mounted transformer banks so close to Ellen Ryerson and Bonnie Rosenberg’s historic 311 Greene St. building, no painting, scraping, and pointing work could be done without violating federal health and safety rules.

Yet the work must be done on the historic facades of these Wooster Square landmarks, or they’ll deteriorate.

So what’s to be done? Who’s to pay?

That question was engaged when Ryerson and Rosenberg appeared at the most recent meeting of the Historic District Commission at City Hall .

Following up on documents they had submitted to chair Trina Learned and the other HDC commissioners, Ryerson said that when the Priory Condominium Association last scraped and painted its building, in 2015, it could not access the bump-out and other areas because UI had placed transformers too close to it. Having people work up there, in close proximity to the transformers and wires, would violate federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) safety rules.

Ryerson said the group’s last communication with UI indicated the utility might temporarily remove the transformer, but that would cost in excess of $3,000 and leave ten units without power for the duration of the work.

“We’ve been wililng to spend a lot on our [historic] building, so it seems unfair that UI put up the transformers too close and we should have to pay in money and also inconvenience of not having power,” Ryerson said at the meeting, which took place this past Wednesday night.

Learned was not convinced the question was within the purview of the commission.

“Many times repairs require being without power. What is our role here?” she asked.

Rosenberg said the issue would not be before the commission if UI, without consulting building or anyone, had not moved its transformer banks and wires to their present location. She pointed out that before the move, they were on the park side of Greene Street, where there are no buildings. A better location would also have been on the east side of Hughes Place, where the newer buildings have deeper setbacks, she said.

Acting City Plan Director Mike Piscitelli concurred with Learned that “it’s not part of your statutory work.”

However he suggested it would be useful if the commission provided a sense of its feeling on the matter “to help us [the city] in negotiating with UI. It has been an issue raised elsewhere in the city.”

The New Haven Urban Design League‘s Anstress Farwell, sought to emphasize the wider issue inherent in Ryerson and Rosenberg’s situation, and its seriousness.

“UI moved transformers without notice. it’s a kind of taking. It says, You can’t do things around your property. It’s a citywide thing,” she asserted. ” We need to have a discussion with UI on this in the same way we had a conversation about tree-trimming with UI. There are a lot of issues in this, to help property owners whether in historic districts or not.”

The commissioners concluded the discussion without a vote on the matter. Piscitelli, along with city Corporation Counsel John Ward, said they would be in touch with UI for its position on the matter. Afterwards a next step might be to present problem at a larger forum, such as the Downtown Wooster Square Community Management Team.

After the meeting, Ryerson expressed disappointment.

“I feel more support from the public [the preservationists] than the commissioners,” she said. “I feel the commission doesn’t see a connection. But Mike’s [Piscitelli] expression of willingness to get people together is promising.”

When informed of the issue and the meeting, Shoba Lemoine, director of communications for AVANGRID, the owner of UI, provided this comment: “The transformer location was determined by both the property owner at the time and UI prior to 2010, when electricity was originally established for that building. That transformer feeds only that property and UI adhered to all NESC (National Electrical Safety Codes). In the event that the transformer must be removed and put back, which is not customary, there would be a charge to do so. The property would also experience a loss of power during that time.”


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posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 16, 2018  1:37pm

Make sure to include McDonalds and Coors Light ads on the exterior of the transformer boxes as well. And maybe throw some historic photographs on them as well. #GSCIA

posted by: JCFremont on April 16, 2018  2:42pm

Before landmarked there needs to be a study of the original occupant and see if they pass today’s current culture. I believe Wooster Square was the first volley of New Haven’s gentrification.

posted by: robn on April 16, 2018  3:26pm

Is it correctly stated in the article that not just the transformers, but wires also create an OSHA proximity issue with facade restoration work? If so, then there would be a problem whether or not the transformers were placed on that particular pole (because the wires would still be there.) Also, I thought it was customary for UI to send in a crew and put a protective wrap around house supply lines for house painters?

posted by: wendy1 on April 16, 2018  8:22pm

The transformers are a health hazard to folks living on that street and in those building.  UI is responsible and should move them ASAP.  Read Currents Of Death if you dont believe me.  And these two homeowners should use that non-fiction in their defense.  I totally support them.  $3000 is no big deal for UI who rips all of us off every month…a greedy and evil company that happily pollutes.

posted by: robn on April 16, 2018  10:44pm


Like light and radio waves, and microwaves, electromagnetic radiation from power lines is non-ionizing radiation meaning that (unlike radiation produced by nuclear weapons or reactors) it can’t bump electrons out of atoms and cause cellular damage.
“Currents of Death” is total horsehockey.

posted by: NHVCyclist on April 17, 2018  9:08am

“Many times repairs require being without power. What is our role here?” she asked.

Not these types of repairs.  Electrical repairs, yes - but an electrician can replace an entire residential electrical panel in a few hours.  Minimal disruption to residents.

A preservation-quality paint job on a detailed building like this (preparation/stripping per lead-safe regulations, repair any rot, caulk, prime, 2 coats of each color, reinstall any gutters, storm windows, etc) can take over a week even for a very small area of the building.  If it was the full exterior, could be months.  Are the residents supposed to be without power for over a week?
If any of the units are rented, these owners will be required to place their tenants in a hotel for the duration of the work.

Sounds like historic homeowners (and homeowners in general) need better advocates at City Hall.

posted by: wendy1 on April 17, 2018  9:25am

Currents Of Death was originally a 4 part piece in the New Yorker.  Electromagnetic radiation causes cancer, birth defects, etc.  A cancer cluster in Guilford Ct got the research ball rolling as a matter of fact.

posted by: robn on April 17, 2018  10:24am


What you wrote just isn’t true. There is no body of reliable data suggesting that low-frequency EMFs are bad for your health.