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.