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Neighborhood residents rally against Oak Hills Park driving range proposal

Betsy Wrenn addresses the Oak Hills Park Authority Thursday at Norwalk City Hall.

By Nancy Guenther Chapman

NORWALK, Conn. – A concerted effort by Norwalk citizens to protest a proposed golf driving range in their neighborhood Thursday night grew contentious as speakers pushed, and in at least one case shattered, the boundaries of the three-minute comment limit as a Norwalk Police officer stood by.

The Oak Hills Park Authority meeting at City Hall was held against the backdrop of the resignation of Oak Hills Park Golf Course Superintendent Thomas Vorio, who gave no reason for his resignation, but had been at odds with the authority over the way the golf course is being run (see separate story).

Vorio’s resignation was followed by more than a half hour of comments from citizens in an atmosphere described as “contentious” by Betsy Wrenn. (This reporter got there at 7:30 p.m., the advertised start time on the city’s website. In actuality, it began at 7 p.m.)

Wrenn and others said OHPA Chairman Bob Virgulak tried to hold speakers to their three-minute limit, but Paul Cantor had a speech prepared, and others gave him their time to allow him to finish.

Wrenn provided a copy of the speech to this reporter.

In it, Cantor asked a series of pointed questions aimed at showing authority members why the public has opposed attempts to build a driving range at the course. Cantor said it was his hope that, by making the authority understand the objections, it would abandon the plan and “seek to manage the golf course so it is sustainable with the income it receives from green and other fees related to playing on it.”

Cantor asked about the 1999 master plan for the park, wondering what had happened to the hoped-for nature and fitness trails, ice skating rink and bocce courts.

“How did the master plan’s concept of a small practice range where golfers can warm up before a round morph into your proposal for a double decker driving range large enough and lucrative enough to subsidize the golf course?” he asked.

About 35 citizens came out to attend the meeting.

Wrenn, a Weed Avenue resident, reminded authority board members that they expected a restaurant on the course to “be fabulous.” Instead, the restaurant closed recently and will be replaced by another that intends to present a “smart and affordable” menu, according to Vincent Laforte of AV Management, which will run the new operation.

The driving range would be a “huge gamble for nothing. It’s just like, ‘oh, that will work,’” Wrenn said.

Another resident said that only 10 percent of Norwalk residents are golfers, while the park is “a valuable resource for the whole city.”

Virgulak told the crowd that the authority is “still in the very infancy of this operation,” regarding the driving range. He said there is a “lack of information” out there, leading to misunderstandings. It’s not the same plan from 11 or 12 years ago, he said.

There are no lights planned for the driving range and the “location will not be intrusive to the neighborhood,” he said. The city will invest no money and will probably give a 10-year lease to the company that builds it. Then it will belong to the city.

“If somebody had any kind of other suggestions to bring in any big revenue to keep us afloat … we’d be happy certainly to entertain it,” he said. The authority has considered mini-golf on the property and doesn’t have the money for a swimming pool, he said.

There will be a public hearing on the proposal, he said.

The authority began work on a new master plan at its last meeting, it said. The West Norwalk Association will be invited to help with the plan.

WNA had been invited to tour the area the proposed driving range would be in two Saturdays ago, he said.

Common Council member Bruce Kimmel (D-District D) said he had toured the site. The proposed driving range is better than the one proposed 10 years ago, he said.

Bill Wrenn compared it to a 2002 plan. “This plan is worse,” he said. “This one is bigger.”

The proposed plan encompasses six acres in a forested area of the park, he said.

 

Comments

8 responses to “Neighborhood residents rally against Oak Hills Park driving range proposal”

  1. Bruce Kimmel

    There is a small mistake in the article. I toured the site of the previous proposal for a driving range, ten years ago. Not the new site. Unlike the previous proposal, the new proposal, from what I have been told, does not require that the course be reconfigured; will not be near roads or homes; cannot be seen from the road; does not impact existing trails; and does not require city funding. I believe it is worth a serious look by all those concerned about the park.

  2. Diane C2

    Mr. Kimmel, with all due respect, those attributes are quoted directly from those seeking to have this approved, and truly are only one side of the story, so I applaud your call for a serious look by all concerned‘, as this has NOT been the case for the past 6 months while Mr. Virgulak has been working on a proposal with ONE prospective bidder.
    If you read meeting minutes and other blog comments, you’ll see requests for public inclusion and a “serious look”; inded, it is all that many of us have asked for.

  3. Oldtimer

    Who is AV Management ? Who are their backers ? Was there a bidding process for the franchise to run the restaurant ? Who were the other bidders ? Is it possible for one person to have made a deal with one provider without a request for proposals and the usual steps in the city entering a contract, or is the Oak Hills Authority exempt from city purchasing rules ? Is AV management the same LLC that registered with the CT secretary of state today ?

  4. Oldtimer

    The AV Management company, just listed as an LLC with the Ct secretary of State, shows no place of busines and one principal, AMAR HAOUARI, who was a manager for Quattro Pissa . It looks as if he is forming another company to run the restaurant at Oak Hills. It is an unusual name and he comes up on Google as having history in the restaurant business, with several restaurants, as a manager..

  5. Diane C2

    OT – when I asked the partners of AV Management for their business cards or contact information, and whether I could find their LLC information registered, (he did say that their venture was new, and that the LLC was in process. It was not posted there Thursday night) Mr. Haouri basically said “we don’t have to answer the public, if you have questions, ask the commissioners”. That’s all not well and not good, especially considering the commissioners apparently answer to no one. They did extremely poor due diligence the last time around with the suspicious RM Staffing, and perhaps precious little more this time. I believe the lease is still with Quattro for now, and it granted them the right to pick a sub lessor . Once Quattro’s lease term is up, I think Oak Hills has to go out to bid, versus selecting AV as sole source.
    I gave AV partners my contact information, but I doubt I’ll hear anything back. If I do, I’ll get more of their credentials. The other fellow, Mr. LaForte, has been the exec chef at Rockrimmon Country Club in Stamford for years, so that is a good sign.

  6. Richard Hollyday

    Folks:

    Has anyone studied the success of Stamford’s Sterling Farms public golf course with restaurants and driving range as a successful model on which to base this driving range proposal in Norwalk? I do not claim to know the details regarding Sterling farms other than to observe they seam to be a viable operation close to a residential neighborhood.

  7. oldtimer

    Richard
    There is also a small community Theater at Sterling Farms, I believe. Do you have real numbers to support the claim that Sterling Farms is successful ? I assume you are suggesting it is self-supporting with no subsidy from the City of Stamford. I would wonder if that was true, or if Stamford subsidizes it without a lot of drama through their parks dept.

  8. Suzanne

    Sterling Farms had an existing driving range, very simple, open bays, ground level only prior to the range they have now. The land was open, cleared and netted. The subsequent improvements that exist now, two-stories with enclosed bays were placed at the exact location the old driving range bays were. In other words, no blasting, re-grading or deforestation was required to create the driving range as it exists today. The circumstances of installment are very different between Oak Hills and Sterling Farms. So much so, I don’t believe the comparison is all that relevant.

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