NORWALK, Conn. – The battle may have been lost, but the Friends of Oak Hills Park insist that the war to keep a driving range from being built on city-owned property is not over.
“I plan to continue to fight the so-called Master Plan and my understanding is that others who have been involved with the Friends of Oak Hills will continue to fight it as well. All of us, I believe, are appalled by the OHPA’s lack of transparency and disdain for public opinion,” Paul Cantor said.
The Common Council voted 8-5 last week to approve the Master Plan, in spite of an seemingly organized effort put forth by the “Friends.”
Comments made to the Council in an effort to discredit the plan included a detailed history review from Third Taxing District Commissioner Deb Goldstein.
“I appeal to you to make sure you understand that Master Plan you are being asked to approve should not be considered at all, given the number of legal and contractual obligations that have fallen by the wayside,” Goldstein said, going on to provide a list:
• “In 1966, the City of Norwalk received a federal grant for a little over $131,000 to partially fund the purchase of the land that became Oak Hills Park and we agreed that the land is to be held and used for permanent open-space land for recreation and park area.
• “In 1967, the City stitched together seven parcels of land acquired for that purpose into Oak Hills Park. In the dedication agreement, Norwalk asserts its intent to use the land for recreational and conservation purposes as defined by the CGS, that it received a state grant-in-aid for the acquisition of the land for conservation, recreational and open space purposes and that it agrees with the state not to convert the land for any other purpose without approval of the state. Said covenants are to run with the land in favor of the State of Connecticut. It should be noted that the CGS specifically cites a driving range as an accepted open space use but a restaurant is not.
• “Fast-Forward to 1996, when the city conducted a comprehensive process to develop a Master Plan of Parks Rec and Open Space across three Common Council terms. Mr. Bonenfant and Mr. Hempstead may remember the plan, they were thanked in its pages. For Oak Hills Park, with at that time an 82 percent favorable approval rating, the plan spoke of a need for a clubhouse/restaurant and a driving range. Total projected budget for those improvements? $385,000.
“In 1997, with the city already carrying the debt service of $2.5 million in bonds to help finance the purchase of the park land and build a golf course, the city created a municipal authority to enable Oak Hills Park to be run apart from the city’s general budgeting process. The charter cites the CGS on open space and the mandate of the OHPA to run the golf course, a restaurant and a driving range. It also states the authority shall seek to maximize the recreation and park use of Oak Hills Park.
• “In 1997, the city secured an additional $2.5 million in bonds for improving the course, and financing the restaurant and a driving range, which are the defined uses for those funds. The city and the newly formed OHPA sign a lease placing the park in the custodianship of the authority. This lease does not in any way release OHPA from the permanent post-grant restrictions relating to those federal and state grants, and does not change the mandate of a municipally managed golf course under CGS. It does, however, state that the Authority’s rental obligations throughout the period of Bond Issue shall include the repayment of all costs of the 1997 bonds, as well as all future bonds. The lease provides for, among other things, a reserve fund, a capital accounts fund, six year’s grace before paying rent, an independent audit of its operating funds. It states that OHPA shall have an obligation to raise all other funding necessary to cover expenses for all other capital improvements for the Park. It is clear from these kinds of references throughout the lease that the city intended this $2.5 million back in ’97 to get OHPA up and running with no future assistance from the city.
The lease states that any other improvements can only be carried out with the express written consent of the City, that such plans and specifications shall be prepared by and at the expense of the Authority in detail satisfactory to the city. I read this to mean that you have the ability to obligate OHPA to follow your city park master plan process, to insist upon things like traffic studies, and to decline further encroachments on the remaining uses as a park. The lease also states that OHPA agrees that it shall throughout the term of this lease, at its sole cost and expense and without any expense to the city maintain the park and its improvements. It shall comply with and abide by all federal, state, municipal and other governmental statutes, ordinances etc., etc.
• “In ’99, in response to a legal action taken by members of the public, the state DEEP and the Attorney General issued an opinion that the restaurant would not be a conforming use in an open space funded park and outlined steps that the city was supposed to take to cure the loss of open space if the restaurant was constructed. It got built anyway.
• “Last year, soil remediation was found to be required. OHPA wants the city to pay for it, claiming that it may have existed as much as 17 years ago when it took over the lease. It is currently a violation of the lease because it remains uncured. It should be noted that had OHPA complied with their original time line for improvements in the park, it would likely would have outed this problem then, if it had existed then.
• “This year, OHPA released a master plan that has no traffic study, no soils report, no environmental impact study, no water usage analysis and it doesn’t certify that endangered species will not be harmed by the project,” Goldstein said. “It makes no mention of the continuing violation of the federal and state grants regarding the restaurant and it did not make a detailed study of outdoor activities other than golf. To the extent that the Master Plan only refers to golf. It made no note of outdoor activities, things like haunted hay rides, lighted lantern sculpture displays, zip-lines, ice skating and so on, and things that the community is actually asking for, like basketball. Most galling of all, contrary to the fact that the authority has already used up the $2.5 million designated for the driving range and the restaurant, that they were meant to be self-funding all of their own capital improvements going forward. OHPA now wants up to $4 million more. This is on the heels of the promise that the developer would fund the construction of the driving range.”
“Without taking a position on the relative merits of the driving range itself, which others have done, I urge you, as the elected members of our government that you decline to approve this Master Plan, and use the legal tools at your disposal to ensure that they stop exceeding its mandate and come back with a proposal that is responsible, affordable, manageable and legally compliant,” Goldstein said.
Regina Krummel offered her own history lesson, from when her children were young.
“I remember very clearly that I would take them to Oak Hills Park, and it was a park,” Krummel said. “Now we are seeing this turning it into a commercial driving range that will just be useful for the surrounding communities. We already have enough in Norwalk for the surrounding communities of a commercial nature. Our place is loaded with them. We should prevent ourselves from becoming a dumping ground and remember the ice skating rinks and the walks that the children used to be able to take.”
Bill Krummel was one of several Friends who criticized the plan’s financial analysis.
“What is going to be the revenue? How many people are going to use it? What are the costs going to be? How is it to be financed? Not just a vague statement but a detailed analysis of how this is to be done,” Krummel said.
The criticisms of the Master Plan also came from OHPA member Elsa Peterson, who said the definition of the woodlands to be protected as permanent open space that is written into the Master Plan is not clear or consistent. On page 41 it said, “on the wooded area that in the past was proposed as a driving range,” on page 15 it’s “located on vacant wooded land behind the 18th hole,” and on page 22, it says “lands to the east of the 18th fairway,” she said.
Mary Therese “Missy” Conrad echoed that.
“When there is something referred to it must be consistently referred to. It can’t be sometimes the woods, sometimes the open space,” Conrad said. “… I think that this land here, at the Oak Hills, the woods, has to be delineated, has to be consistently referred to. They don’t even know how much actual area it is. It has to be put in forever open space so that somebody doesn’t kind of say ‘well, we’re going to give some other open space,’ which is the switch. So it’s up to you all right now. You know, things get chipped away. But right now you’re here you can do it, your little piece for nature.”
Then there was Cantor.
“Have any of you taken a hard, critical look at the OHPA’s so-called Master Plan? If you have, you will see there is a diagram of every single hole on the course but not a single diagram of the walking trails or nature center they claim they are going to spend $50,000 to construct,” Cantor said. “Clearly, those who drafted it had next to no interest in a nature center or in preserving the wooded area behind the restaurant, an area incidentally where the OHPA first intended to locate the driving range.”
Council members answered some of those comments.
Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) asked OHPA Chairman Clyde Mount about protecting the woodlands.
“We’ve actually talked about the protection of the land, and we’re willing to have an amended lease with the city, and that the city can put a no-build zone on that piece of land and it would be done; at least as long as Oak Hills is there,” Mount said. “We can’t protect land that’s not ours. We lease the land. The city has to protect it.”
Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) asked Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola if the city could do that.
“I can’t tell you in a vacuum that the city could unilaterally place deed restrictions upon a property, unless I know whether or not it could potentially violate a provision of the lease agreement,” Coppola said. “A tenant who has essentially a lease hold interest in the property, a property right by virtue of that lease, so I can’t tell you whether certain restrictions would or would not violate the lease. I’d need to know what the proposed restriction would be, and then we would need to review the lease to determine whether or not it violates a provision of the lease, or a right that Oak Hills maintains by virtue of the lease. In concept you might be able to do it, I just – without knowing all the facts and being able to review the lease, I can’t give you an answer on the spot.”
“I don’t have any major, any minor issues with this plan. I’m certainly going to vote in favor of moving this along knowing it’s a guideline. Knowing that it’s got to go through Planning and Zoning, when it comes back for certain issues,” Hempstead went on to say.
Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said the committee will discuss the Master Plan’s economic analysis in November.
“It’s rather detailed,” Kimmel said. “There are some interesting assumptions, which I think we’ll discuss in November at the Finance Committee. So the idea, or the notion that there is no economic analysis behind the proposals is wrong. It’s quite extensive and I was impressed by it, although I do have some questions about the assumptions that are contained in it, which we will discuss. The numbers flow from those assumptions.”
Cantor was dismissive of all of that when contacted by NoN on Saturday.
“Most appalling, perhaps, is the willingness of members of the Council to approve the plan without seeming to have vetted it or perhaps even to have read it carefully,” Cantor wrote. “Bruce Kimmel says he was impressed by the 16 pages of economic analysis he found in the plan. He must have read a different document than the one I am aware of and that is posted on the OHPA’s website. If you would parse each Common Council member’s comments I think you would find equally many if not all of them equally egregious. My hope is that collectively we may help you do just that. It is certainly remarkable that coming immediately after the fight to prevent the mosque from being constructed on Fillow Street primarily because of the traffic it would generate not a single Council member raised a question about the effect the driving range would have on traffic.”
Council members voting for the plan were Jerry Petrini (R-District D), Doug Hempstead (R-At Large), Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D), Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large), Glenn Iannacone (R-At Large), John Kydes (D-District C), Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) and Maggio. Voting no were Eloisa Melendez (D-District A), Travis Simms (D-District B), Sharon Stewart (D-At Large), David Watts (D-District A) and Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B). John Igneri (D-District E) and David McCarthy (R-District E) were absent.