by Kim Martineau
The Hartford Courant
October 24, 2006
BRANFORD — A local lobsterman has chosen to defy the town and keep his rights to a potentially valuable stretch of seabed off the shore of Branford that's in the path of the proposed Islander East natural gas pipeline.
Michael Torelli, who is currently in prison on a drunken driving conviction, has hired a prominent shoreline attorney to represent him in what could become a drawn-out battle with the town and state. The town mistakenly granted Torelli a section of seafloor last spring before realizing the bed was smack in the path of the proposed gas pipeline.
Worried about speculation and shell fishermen striking lucrative deals with the pipeline's wealthy backers, the town has since placed off-limits to the public all remaining shellfish beds in the path of the pipeline.
Bridgeport attorney William Bloss said his client has a legal right to the shellfish beds in the same way that a tenant with a signed lease has a right to stay in his home. "The lease is a binding contract," he said. "Nothing in the lease allows the town to terminate it."
From his prison cell in Storrs, Torelli has applied to the state Bureau of Aquaculture & Laboratory Services for permission to suspend 1,000 shellfish cages over the spot that Duke Energy and KeySpan - joint partners in Islander East - want to use as an exit point for their underground pipeline. Torelli also has asked the bureau to flag the area with buoys.
David Carey, head of the bureau, has denied the request for buoys and tried to discourage Torelli from suspending cages in an area that is set to become a construction zone if the pipeline is approved. The state is also concerned about the unprecedented size of Torelli's proposal. "A thousand cages would be the largest project we have to date in Long Island Sound," Carey said.
A federal appeals court recently returned the Islander East application to the state Department of Environmental Protection for review, finding that the state had not provided enough documentation for rejecting the project on environmental grounds. State analysts were out on the Sound last week taking samples of the sea bottom to document the oysters, clams and crabs living there.
The question of who controls the critical plot of seabed in the pipeline corridor may eventually be settled in court.
Town attorney Shelley Marcus said the town revoked Torelli's lease in September when he failed to answer a letter asking him to surrender the bed.