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Norwalk citizens debate over Oak Hills

 

There’s plenty of fodder for debate with issues surrounding the Oak Hills Park Authority.

NORWALK, Conn. – The arguments against trying to put a driving range at Oak Hills Park are “not particularly apt,” a Norwalk Common Councilman said in an email last week, drawing responses that included the idea that he was “putting politics over people.”

Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) was the only person to respond to an email sent to every council member and signed by 22 people who wanted a third addendum to the request for proposals. McCarthy’s response was described as “nasty” by Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Association members at their Monday meeting, though the email discussion was “lively.”

The exchange might be a portent of things to come. Norwalk’s governmental structures have let the citizenry down, Diane Lauricella said Monday evening, an idea upon which she elaborated in the emails presented below. She said the coalition would follow up on the thoughts she expressed.

“We are going to force this issue,” she said. “The council has not properly handled their structure. Recreation and Parks should have been one of the first committees to begin public discussion on this.”

Also shirking their duties are the Council Land Use and Building Management committee, the Council Planning Committee and the Conservation Committee, she said.

The original email, signed by Paul Barringer, Tonia Barringer, Betsy Bowen, Paul Cantor, Diane Cece, Dianne Keefe, Bill Krummel, Regina Krummel, Diane Lauricella, Yvonne Lopaur, Dale Mayer, George McGuire, Nancy McGuire, Dolores Halacy Meehan, Elsa Peterson Obuhowski, Scott Kimmich, Peter Schuerch, Ursula Schuerch, Cary Shaw, Kate Tepper, Gordon Tully and Bill Wrenn, contains this passage:

“If the goal of the practice range is to help solve the OHPA’s financial problems then (a minimum level of compensation) should be set,” the email sent by Paul Cantor read. “Taxpayers cannot be confident that a practice range constructed and run by a private developer will help solve the OHPA’s financial problems rather than contribute to them if they have no information regarding the minimum amount the Authority expects to take in from leasing the land and sharing a percentage of the range’s gross revenue.”

The email also said OHPA should ask for a performance bond or an escrow check from the successful bidder.

Not a good idea, McCarthy said.

“I know that you are not an expert in either municipal government or government contracting, so I would not expect you to know this, but it is extremely ill-advised to do what you suggest,” he wrote, addressing himself to Cantor. “Not that I am positioning myself as an expert, but it is clear that to suggest a minimum undercuts the value of the procurement process. … While I appreciate input from diverse sources, I am not finding most communications on this topic to be particularly apt.”

He also responded to a critical comment from Suzanne Ste. Therese.

“I will also disagree with your comment that what I am doing smacks of ‘politics over people.’” he wrote. “I am not sure what that means, but I am comfortable with every decision I have made and the work I have done. The vast majority of people in this city seem to want this effort to result in a driving range. I have heard from no members of the community outside the small insular group that is against it. I have heard from several former members of your group, expressing support. I have also heard from many other constituents, all have been supportive.”

The emails continued for hours. The entire exchange is below:

An email from Paul Cantor to Purchasing Agent Gerald Foley

Dear Gerald:

Thank you for the time you spent addressing questions regarding the Request for Proposal (RFP) for the development, construction, and operation of a new outdoor golf practice range facility in Oak Hills Park.

This email is in response to your request that questions be submitted to you in writing so that you may include responses to them as addenda to the RFP.   We note that the RFP states that all questions must be directed to you via email or fax and “strongly” suggests that proposers “check for any addenda a minimum of forty-eight hours in advance of the bid deadline.”

Our first questions have to do with the hours of operation of the practice range.   The Oak Hills Park Authority (OHPA) reassured the public at a number of its meetings that the practice range would not be permitted to operate past dusk.  Yet the RFP states on page 6 that at “no time will the range be allowed to open other than the hours of operation for Oak Hills unless agreed to by the OHPA.”  Hence we would like you to respond to the following three questions:

1.  Might the OHPA agree to extend the hours of operation for the practice range in the future?

2.  Alternatively, might the OHPA enable the practice range to operate in the evening by extending the hours of operation for Oak Hills into the evening?

3.  Might the practice range ever be permitted to operate past dusk?

Another question has to do with whether the practice range will be able to utilize lights. The OHPA has frequently reassured the public that the practice range would not be allowed to utilize lights but nowhere in the RFP is that made clear.  Hence, we would like to know:

4.  Will the operator of the practice range at any point be permitted to construct lights that will enable it to operate past dusk?

Additional questions have to do with what guarantees will be put in place to ensure the practice range will help resolve rather that contribute to the financial difficulties the OHPA is facing.  On page 3 the RFP states that for the privilege of operating the practice range, the developer shall pay OHPA an annual lease fee for its use of the park property, plus remit to OHPA a percentage of the annual gross receipts which are defined as the total of all practice range revenue, merchandise, and food and beverage sales.”  Also on page 3 the RFP declares that an objective of the practice range is to ensure “that OHPA receives an adequate and appropriate level of compensation” from the firm selected to operate it.

5.  What is “an adequate and appropriate level of compensation”?

6.  Specifically, what is the minimum amount of compensation the OHPA will accept for permitting the driving range to be constructed and operated in the park?

7.  What is the monthly minimum amount the OHPA is willing to accept for lease of the land that will be utilized to construct the driving range?

8.  What is the minimum percentage of the driving range’s gross revenue that the OHPA will be willing to accept as a condition for allowing it to operate?

Our next questions deal with the risk that the OHPA and by extension taxpayers will suffer a loss if the proposer selected backs out of the project after it has been initiated.  On page 6 under “Contract Award” the RFP allows for no more than “evidence of a commitment from investors or lender to fund the full cost of the facility” together with “evidence of the required insurance coverage levels.”

9.  What is the reason for providing language that relaxes the requirement for  “a performance bond or escrow check in the full amount of the construction cost”?

10. Precisely what “evidence” would satisfy you of a “commitment from investors or lender to fund the full cost of the facility?”

One of our major concerns is to preserve the only nature trails in Oak Hills Park.  The RFP requires that the firm selected to construct and operate the driving range “Install walking trails in areas around the practice range to promote other uses of the park for non-golfer” and to “Maintain the wooded feel in the area with the replacement of cleared trees with new trees in a location and amounts acceptable to the authority.”

11.  What will the firm that constructs and operates the driving range be required to do to ensure that the operation of the driving range won’t have a negative impact on those who just want to enjoy the only remaining natural surroundings in the park – i.e. the wooded area between the Restaurant and Chipping Lane?

12.  Where do you anticipate the new trees will be planted?

13.  If cleared trees are to be replaced with new trees doesn’t that mean that at a minimum the amount acceptable to the authority will be equal to the number of trees that have been cleared?

Additional questions follow:

On page 7 under “Availability of Funds” the RFP states: “The contract award under this RFP may be contingent upon the availability of funds to the OHPA.”  But the OHPA maintains it will not use any of its and by extension taxpayers funds to construct the driving range.  Hence, we’d like to know:

14.  What funds might the OHPA require to move ahead with the project?

On page 5 under “Obligations of the Operator” the RFP requires the operator of the practice range to obtain all necessary permits and approvals for the operation” of the practice range facility.

15.  Can you specify some or all of the permits the operator will have to acquire?

Page 2 of the RFP refers to a selection committee that “will choose the two or three firms that best meet the Oak Hills Park Authority’s requirements.”

16.  Who is on the selection committee?

The RFP calls for a practice range not a driving range.  Our understanding is that a practice range is smaller and less intrusive than a driving range.

17.  Are there limits that will be permitted to the size of the practice range (e.g. to the number of bays, number of levels, and height of the nets that will be allowed)?

18. Are there any other conditions that you would put on the construction of the practice range?

19.  Has a study been done of the impact a practice range on the proposed site will have on the environment (including the nature trails and bird sanctuary)?  If so, what does it say?  If not, is there going to be an environmental impact study or is there some reason why one is not required?

Again, we appreciate your willingness to address our questions.  And we think by answering them it will help clear up any misunderstandings anyone may have regarding the OHPA’s RFP for a practice range.

Sincerely,

Betsy Bowen, Paul Cantor, Diana Lauricella, Yvonne Lopaur, Scott Kimmich, George and Nancy McGuire, Beth Siegelbaum, Kate Tepper, Bill Wrenn

The group emails the entire council

In its responses to questions 27, 28, and 29 in its second addendum to its RFP for a practice range The Oak Hills Park Authority (OHPA) points out that the “minimum level of compensation” it will require from the winning bidder “has not been set.”

But if the goal of the practice range is to help solve the OHPA’s financial problems then it should be set. Taxpayers cannot be confident that a practice range constructed and run by a private developer will help solve the OHPA’s financial problems rather than contribute to them if they have no information regarding the minimum amount the Authority expects to take in from leasing the land and sharing a percentage of the range’s gross revenue.

In response to questions 4, 29 and 30 the OHPA indicated it is willing to relax the requirement that the winning bidder submit a performance bond or escrow check. That puts taxpayers at greater risk of being burdened with financial difficulties caused by a developer that backs out of the project before it is completed.

Consequently as Norwalk residents and members of the Friends of Oak Hills Park we respectfully urge you to advise the OHPA that since the deadline for submitting bids on its RFP is May 1 it should immediately issue a third addendum that:

1. provides figures for the minimum amount it is willing to accept for leasing the land, the minimum share of the practice range’s gross revenues that it would be willing to accept, and the minimum amount of revenue it expects the driving will generate.

2. makes it clear that they will expect the winning bidder to submit a performance bond or escrow check to guarantee that the project once initiated will not end up being a burden for taxpayers.

Sincerely,

Paul Barringer, Tonia Barringer, Betsy Bowen, Paul Cantor, Diane Cece, Dianne Keefe, Bill Krumel, Regina Krumel, Diane Lauricella, Yvonne Lopaur, Dale Mayer, George McGuire, Nancy McGuire, Dolores Halacy Meehan, Elsa Peterson Obuhowski, Scott Kimmich, Kate Tepper, Gordon Tully, Peter Schuerch, Ursula Schuerch, Bill Wrenn

One council member, David McCarthy, replies

Mr. Cantor,

I know that you are not an expert in either municipal government or government contracting, so I would not expect you to know this, but it is extremely ill-advised to do what you suggest.  Not that I am positioning myself as an expert, but it is clear that to suggest a minimum undercuts the value of the procurement process.  It would be the equivalent of telling a car dealer what you are willing to pay…it inflates their bid instantly to that point.  So, rather than encouraging competition and getting the best deal for the city, you inadvertently do the opposite.

That being said, I would no more attempt to interfere with the city’s procurement process than I would an Authority’s (of which I am not a member) conduct of its own business.  We  have separation of powers for precisely that reason.  Issues that need council approval need council approval, and it is not appropriate to interfere.  In this case, “The powers of the Oak Hills Park Authority shall be exercised by an Authority, consisting of nine electors of the City of Norwalk, who shall be appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the Common Council.”  While the council does have the authority to remove a member for “ inefficiency, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office, after an investigation, notice and public hearing,” that is clearly not the case here.  The professional conduct of the procurement office of the city,while at times slower than some might want, has always been in keeping with the highest standards to protect the city.

While I appreciate input from diverse sources, I am not finding most communications on this topic to be particularly apt.

Paul Cantor shoots back

You must know that it is common in auctions by a seller to state a minimum acceptable price.  That is where the bidding would begin, and bids would go up from there.

The OHPA is not selling cars.

It is seeking a developer/operator of a practice range who will provide it with the income it needs to cover the difference between its costs and the revenue received from golfers.  The income is expected to come from rent received for the land on which the practice range will be constructed as well as a share of the gross revenue from operating the practice range.

Therefore the Authority should provide taxpayers and potential bidders with its best estimate of the minimum amount it expects to receive from the rent and gross revenues. The result of specifying that minimum will be to weed out potential bidders who will not serve the purpose for which it maintains the practice range is intended.

With respect to your “separations of powers” comment: as a member of the Common Council you are responsible for helping to promote the interests of all the taxpayers of the city.  Therefore, I would hope that you would point out to the OHPA that it is not acceptable for it to put those interests at risk by relaxing, as it has indicated it might relax, the requirement for a performance bond or an escrow check from a winning bidder on its RFP for a driving range.

McCarthy: Here’s why a minimum is a bad idea

Thanks for your reply.  If there were thousands of companies interested in this project and there was perfect information in the marketplace, you might have a reasonable position. I have no inside information, but given the number of companies we see bidding on larger contracts, it would be foolish to assume there will be.

My position is that were the authority to reveal a number that it would accept, there would likely be some level of communication between the bidders and they would all bid on top of each other quite close to that minimum.  If the minimum were not near a company’s estimate … say it were off by a factor of ten, they would certainly adjust down. You are seeking to have the Authority reveal its side of an (eventual) negotiation.  I don’t agree with that.  Since neither one of us are working in the procurement office, it really doesn’t matter.  I am comfortable that they (the city procurement staff) are proceeding according the rules and practices of their office and trade.

Diane Lauricella criticizes Norwalk government

David  I first want to thank you for responding to this email, for several members of the Council seem to have forgotten that they were elected by we the people and we deserve a response.

That being said, I want to point out two glaring points that you made where I think there has been an error:

1.  While you state that: “I would no more attempt to interfere with the city’s procurement process than I would an Authority’s (of which I am not a member) conduct of its own business.  We  have separation of powers for precisely that reason.  Issues that need council approval need council approval, and it is not appropriate to interfere.  In this case, “The powers of the Oak Hills Park Authority shall be exercised by an Authority, consisting of nine electors of the City of Norwalk, who shall be appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the Common Council.”  I am not sure who has been advising you about Council procedures, but they again have steered you wrong. I offer that it is precisely your duty, as Common Council members, to oversee the money we loan and the land that we own … no matter who we delegate it to.  Ultimately, this park is owned by the people of Norwalk and any contractor, Board, Commission and Authority who has been granted the privilege to use it must do so in a respectful, fair and responsible way.  I do not feel that has been the case here and am disappointed, but not surprised, that the Council and the Conservation Commission and the whole Administration has let this get as far as it has.

It is my view that several governance layers that were historically, wisely put in place to avoid the foolish use of open space have been delinquent in their duties rising to the level of failing the public trust:

 Conservation Commission:  Strict Charter responsibility to oversee the open spaces of the City, especially in the case of public parks.  I have attempted to get them to take up this issue in a general  discussion about their advice at the early stages of the OHPA proposal process concerning City park use…to make sure that alternatives are proposed FIRST before  going through all this agony, but staff and Commissioners have unwisely remained all but silent.  I went in to meet with staff to make a pitch about how cathartic it would be for this commission to handle their open space duties as laid out in the charter. Near silence.  We are still pursuing this unwise choice.

The following three Council Committees probably by this time know about the OHPA initial RFP plans of last year, but they have done little to publicly allow for discussion, and in my opinion failed to do uphold the public trust on this issue:

Council Recreation and Parks:  should have been one of the first Committees to begin public discussion about this.  Silence.

Council Land Use and Building Management: should have also been one of the first Council Committees to begin a public discussion of this initial proposal.

Council Planning Committee:  As the Council POCD voice, I would have imagined that they could have had more public discussion about what the intention of the POCD language about open space and the golf course was being distorted.

Council Finance Committee: While they did serve as the “loan officers” at the last minute twice in the last year or so, they could have at least have imposed some reasonable conditions such as forcing the OHPA to review real alternatives first, a feasibility study first, and a forensic audit of OHPA first (to see the real reasons behind the money problems). Again, near silence.

2. You mention the point where you feel more comfortable about when Council does have authority to intervene:

“While the council does have the authority to remove a member for ‘inefficiency, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office, after an investigation, notice and public hearing,’ that is clearly not the case here.”   While we are still doing our homework, if I were you, I would not be so sure that this OHPA situation does not rise to some or all of the removal conditions.  After all, if no one looks, they will never find anything….

Suzanne Ste. Therese asks McCarthy pointed question 

Have you ever been in business?  Clearly government run contracts do not function quite the same way but, in the interest of the taxpayers that YOU are supposed to be representing, I find your laissez-faire approach to this taxpayer issue, minimum bid requirements, bonds and insurance by a possible bidder on the driving range project a bit hard to swallow.

I know you work hard as a Council person but the minimum of interest in this issue, given the concern by the constituency, would be appreciated.  You make mention of the many companies who bid on large development contracts in the “marketplace” and I see, as a citizen, the result of this kind of thinking on your part:  fields of dirt, abandoned buildings, promises, promises but no real progress for the Town of Norwalk’s development except for at a very cursory level.

The requirements of an RFP can be looked up at very reputable sites on the Internet.  Paul Cantor is right in pointing out the deficiencies in the process with both the OHPA and the procurement office.  Isn’t it your responsibility to require accountability when representing the constituency in matters concerning tax dollars?

This is what this transaction represents:  especially since the OHPA is borrowing money so frequently and failing in its charter-defined responsibility to run Oak Hills from golf fees.  You know that and, yet, you are willing to sit back and let this lack of accountability run its course?  Aren’t you a CITY COUNCILMAN?  Isn’t your first line of defense for the taxpayer?  Why are the institutions not following basic principles of business practice not getting your queries?

I don’t know you, only your work, but I am afraid this smacks of politics over people.  Again, I know you work hard but, please, take some time to examine the efficacy of this issue and stop not only the inefficiencies but the in competencies of this OHPA.

McCarthy: “I am comfortable with every decision I have made”

Thank you for your continued interest and opinion.  I am a little taken aback by your seeming accusations that I am not representing my constituents and that I am somehow adopting a “laissez faire” attitude.

Quite the opposite.  I have reviewed the minutes of all the pertinent meetings, I have read the RFP and the amplification and answers to questions provided by the Purchasing Department of the city.  I have gone and received a tour of the wooded portion by an immediately abutting neighbor.  I have read every letter in the Norwalk Hour.  I am actively saying that I actively have come to the conclusion that the Purchasing Department of the city (and thereby the OHPA) has put this RFP together correctly.

An RFP is not a contract, it is a method to gain intelligence as to what companies are willing to do and at what “cost.”  This RFP is quite unique, but as I said, I feel it has been put together with a great deal of thought and adheres to the regulations of the city.  I find it a little odd, that given a response (whether you agree with it or not) from me, and only me, apparently, leads you to conclude that I am adopting a laissez faire attitude.  I have and will continue to remain extremely involved.

You can feel free to disagree with me on any of this.  I understand you don’t want this project to go forward.  Your concerns are noted.  You mention that the Park has struggled, you are right, and the RFP is an effort to find another source of revenue to correct that.  If you have evidence that the OHPA is somehow not following business or accounting guidelines, you should present it.  I have reviewed their financials in concert with the Finance Director of the city and found no such evidence.  I am not alone in this, the balance of the Finance Committee, and really the entire council has had this opportunity.

I will also disagree with your comment that what I am doing smacks of “politics over people.”  I am not sure what that means, but I am comfortable with every decision I have made and the work I have done.  The vast majority of people in this city seem to want this effort to result in a driving range.  I have heard from no members of the community outside the small insular group that is against it.  I have heard from several former members of your group, expressing support.  I have also heard from many other constituents, all have been supportive.

I am not asking you to agree with me, and I am not asking you to stop opposing this project, both decisions are all yours.
“Appreciative” Ste. Therese cites “parallel” golf courses
Mr. McCarthy,

I appreciate your lengthy reply.

I take to task the following:  “You mention that the Park has struggled, you are right, and the RFP is an effort to find another source of revenue to correct that.  If you have evidence that the OHPA is somehow not following business or accounting guidelines, you should present it.”

The initial point that the driving range presents another source of revenue does not bear out with research performed of existing like golf courses with driving ranges and their income.  I believe the OHPA has been reluctant to obtain this data because they would rather believe that the driving range presents a solution to a financial problem they have not been able to rectify using good management of the course.

The Charter states that Oak Hills should be self-sustaining through golf fees.  This Authority does not know how to manage a golf course and dismissed the team that did.  The golf course has not lived off loans since its founding in 1967 through many ups and downs in the economy until this Authority.

While you have already made your decision to support a driving range as the possible financial answer, have you done any of the research of parallel course examples (and I am NOT referring to Sterling Farms which is not the equivalent of Oak Hills in its context with the surrounding ample business community and extensive night play) that show profits from driving ranges at facilities like Oak Hills are negligible?  That three different consultants, all professionals, all developers of driving ranges in the past, have estimated that to establish a “base course” at the selected site, while possible, will cost between four and seven million dollars depending upon the extent of the driving range’s dimensions?  That necessary support structure, based upon existing drawings from the Department of Public Works of a driving range in that same location shows an unavoidable incursion upon wetlands and the adjacent pond area?

The OHPA does not have a grip on their finances as demonstrated by numerous published reports of loans and problems with repayment on loans to the City of Norwalk all while it states, again, in the City Charter that the Course should be self-sustaining through golf fees.  Clearly, this group does not know how to run Oak Hills profitably and why should they?  Except for one member of the Authority, there is no specific expertise in this group that relates to golf course management.  The head of the Authority does not even play golf and told me personally, “I’m just a taxpayer.”  While the work that they do may have good intentions, they are misdirected as evidenced by the continued financial difficulties.

Further, you and the Finance Committee can do audits to see if accounting practices are being followed. What I am requesting and believe is long overdue is a forensic audit showing the extent of expenses, specific contracts, receipts, adherence to policies, etc.  A very different result than just a fine tooth comb of the books.  (It is disingenuous, as you know, to suggest I produce evidence of improprieties.)  What I am suggesting is the presence of great incompetence which, ultimately, produces financial straits and is needed in order to correct the ongoing financial issues.  How can you know how to correct a problem if you don’t know what it is?

What evidence do you have that those against the driving range are a “small insular group”?  I am well aware of the so-called “survey” in The Hour showing great support for it.  Have you ever voted for one of these “surveys”?  It is very easy to apply multiple votes by one person. If this is what you are using, other than your very public support of the driving range which would only encourage other like-minded individuals to speak with you, then I worry about the hard work you are doing on the Council and its effectiveness.

You have been generous in your replies to numerous correspondents and, for that, I am very appreciative.  You should know that I am not a member of any group and speak for myself in expressing my concerns that additional funds be applied either through loans or contracts to Oak Hills while other, more pressing and I believe, more important concerns in the City of Norwalk need to be addressed.

I am asking that until this Authority can prove their financial mettle in handling Oak Hills per Charter requirements, no more assets be given to them to manage.  Further, I believe, after numerous phone calls to other municipalities, either a professional management company or a virtual driving range, far less expensive and very effective in warm ups and golf learning, be employed.  All of the above would retain the habitat at Oak Hills Park while improving the game of golf for those citizens that play it there.

Diane Cece cites Milwaukee, offending McCarthy

I suspect that you, too, may not be an expert in government contracts, and perhaps less so in conducting routine research or performing due diligence. I presume you have neither the time nor the desire to educate yourself on what is considered SOP for ‘highest responsible bidder’ contracts.

But I do fancy myself fairly adept at conducting research. In doing so relevant to the OHPA driving range RFP process (and I use the term “process” loosely here), I noted, publicly, that their baseline RFP was fashioned almost in its entirety after a Milwaukee County Parks document seeking qualified bidders to design, construct and operate driving range(s).

Probably nothing wrong with their approach, because, after all, why reinvent the wheel on something that another municipality has successfully developed?

However,  please note that perhaps the only segment the OHPA deliberately chose NOT to copy was the section where the Milwaukee County Parks Systems designates both a minimum annual rent ($25k) and a minimum % of gross revenues (15%)

Please note also in their evaluation of the bids that the only criteria the Milwaukee folks ranked higher in the bid consideration than “Experience in design and development…” is  “Revenue remitted to the County”….obviously suggesting the higher the bid, the better!

For your convenience, the page with the designated minimums (B-1) is attached as a word document here, and the link to the full RFP is below:

http://www.ci.mil.wi.us/ImageLibrary/Groups/cntyParks/business/RFPs/Milw_Cnty_Golf_Driving_Range_RFP_2010.pdf

Due to time constraints, I’d been unsuccessful in determining the outcome of this RFP via the internet, but subsequently contacted the procurement folks in Milwaukee and expect an answer regarding its disposition shortly, which I will share with those on copy here.

Milwaukee_Parks_Driving_Range_RFP_MINIMUMS
McCarthy: It’s getting harder to be respectful
I offered my opinion as a response to Mr. Cantor. We exchanged opinions civilly and respectfully and concluded. We may not have agreed with each other, but we communicated. Not so with you. I do not think it is anywhere near the civil discourse process to attempt to make a point by impugning my intelligence and work ethic, especially after I was open, honest and respectful with your group. I have endeavored to remain as neutral and open in this process. I have spoken with several former members of your group who reached out to me and I was taken on a tour of the wooded fringe that is under consideration for this project. You take a discussion and turn it into a personal attack. It’s not appreciated and it’s wrong.

To your point, in my second reply I stated that if there were a lot of companies “interested in this project and there was perfect information in the marketplace, you might have a reasonable position.” I can easily surmise from skimming the RFP you sent me that this authority operates 15 golf courses and 3 outdoor driving ranges and therefore most likely has relationships with many developers as well as a huge amount of data available with respect to its market and usage. That data turns into a fairly precise informed decision to include a minimum, but even that isn’t limiting, because it is a minimum rent along with a percentage of gross.

The first stated purpose of this effort by the OHPA is to “Investigate the health of the Golf Practice Range Industry locally and ascertain whether or not an opportunity exists within the OHPA property for development, construction and operation of a new outdoor practice range…” That means that the OHPA is responsibly trying to gather information to see whether this is a feasible project. Quite a difference between developing the 4th range and gathering information to see if you want to build the 1st. I am still comfortable with my conclusion that providing the answer with the question in sending out the RFP would have been foolish and contrary to the intention to investigate and gather information for the City and the Authority.

I don’t need you to agree with me on that, but I would expect you to respect the fact that I have investigated, learned and made my own judgements.

I have tried to work with you and listen to you over the past 18 months and have treated you with respect, it gets increasingly difficult after things like this and the coordinated assault against the Day St. project in which I am still quite suspicious as to the motivations.
Elsa Peterson Obuchowski: Park should be for multiple use
(Editor’s note: Peterson recognizes that she had “misconstrued” McCarthy’s “sentence about being suspicious of motivations.”)

I’d like to address the comment in your message that you are “quite suspicious as to the motivations.”

Here is my motivation; I make no secret of it. Oak Hills is about 143 acres, and about 135 of those acres are devoted to the golf course (including pro shop, restaurant, parking lots, etc.). Isn’t that enough? Oak Hills Park was created on the premise that it would be for *multiple use* and the only uses now are golf, walking, and tennis. Building a driving range on the proposed site would eliminate walking, making Oak Hills effectively a “golf and tennis club” and nothing more.

Once this 8-10 acre enclave of woodland is destroyed, we’ll never get it back.

If OHPA sincerely believes that the only cure for their financial woes is a driving range, surely they can find room for it somewhere in 135 acres.

Comments

25 responses to “Norwalk citizens debate over Oak Hills”

  1. M. Murray

    Parks are for recreational pursuit and ideally for the most amount of people to use them. My question is if more people will use the ark at the driving range than it is currently being used now? Will the range provide an income or an expense? Will the investment bring more money back into the city or drain money out? Have the 22 people on the email come up with an alternative solution to develop the park in aa bee that will bring in profits to help sustain the golf course? If the golf course is unsustainable, maybe it should close and a large youth recreation center could be built on the property.

  2. LWitherspoon

    Nancy,
    Thank you for publishing this e-mail exchange.
    .
    I don’t have an axe to grind either way on the practice range and have not studied the issue closely. However I do find it odd that a group which has declared its fierce opposition to the range now wants to determine the RFP’s strategy for obtaining the best bid. Doesn’t that raise an obvious conflict of interest? Is it reasonable to take strategic advice from people who have declared that they want this project canceled?
    .
    I also think it’s worth asking about the party affiliations in this group. I do not know all the signatories of the letters printed above, but quite a few of those names are well-known Democratic activists. To what extent are individuals seeking to create more heat than light in an election year? I hope you will report on this Nancy, the same way that you report the party affiliations of Common Council members.
    .
    Lastly, I’m not sure how Dave McCarthy can say that “The vast majority of people in this city seem to want this effort to result in a driving range.” I suspect that the vast majority of people in this city are completely unaware of the controversy. I also suspect that there are many like myself who are paying attention but don’t know what to make of misinformation and incomplete information emanating from both sides of the debate.

  3. Oldtimer

    With a convicted felon who got caught stealing from another city commission he was part of, it is hard to understand how anybody can seriously consider adding a driving range to cure Oak Hills money problems without a forensic audit to find out where the money went. Oak Hills may never be a big source of income for the city, but it seemed to be holding it’s own for years and now, all of a sudden, it must have a driving range to keep it afloat. until there is a forensic audit and we know the management is on the up and up, or not, talking about about “we can’t survive without a driving range” is ridiculous.
    Having already taken the process this far, it will be interesting to see the bids. A driving range could make sense, but we still need answers about where the money went.

  4. David McCarthy

    LWitherspoon, Fair point without a scientific survey. However, people are not shy about sharing and when I have memorized the names of those against the driving range, and they number less than two dozen, it says something. The Hour poll was 80-20 in favor, and while not scientific, it is now very difficult to vote more than once, so I put greater stock in it than before.

    I have even had a dozen or so parents contact me, a few from South Norwalk, precisely because they see golf as an athletic outlet for their kids. That’s is amazing and the key to the future.

    The fact that two former members of this group defected, contacted me, and gave me the inside skinny on them is telling.

    Further to your point about misinformation, I think a thorough reading (if possible) of this exchange and all the other vitriolic rants would reveal that, while the jury is still out on the financial feasibility of this action, all of the arguments made by this group have been demonstrated to be largely without any merit at all.

    Nancy: To use “Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Association members” as a proxy for Diane Cece and Diane Lauricella and then let them anonymously refer to me as nasty is not in keeping with your high standards.

    If pointing out that someone’s arguments are without merit, accusatory without any facts and misleading (to say the very least) is nasty, well, I will wear it as a badge of honor. If you feel that their comments maligning people that volunteer, work and actually do something productive instead of criticizing everything are appropriate, then proceed…

    By the way…I assumed this story would appear, virtually verbatim, before I ever wrote one word. If anyone wonders why no one replies. There is your answer.

  5. LWitherspoon

    @oldtimer
    You say:
    “…it is hard to understand how anybody can seriously consider adding a driving range to cure Oak Hills money problems without a forensic audit to find out where the money went.”
    Where WHAT money went? It has been widely reported that Oak Hills is struggling because 1) revenue is down due to fewer rounds being played and 2) debt service on a very large and expensive restaurant.
    Please clarify your statement. If you have knowledge that money is missing, I hope you will contact the Police immediately so that there can be an investigation.

  6. Dave,
    That comment was made by several people at the meeting and Diane Cece was not among them. There seemed to be a general consensus that the description was accurate among those who had read the email, so I felt saying “Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations members” was appropriate.
    I’m sure that council members are aware that emails can easily be forwarded. I thought this was a good opportunity to present different viewpoints with a lot of information. Thank you for investing the time to express yourself to so many people.

  7. LWitherspoon,
    I am glad you like reading all these emails.
    This story is an interesting experiment. It’s the longest post on this site by far (probably the longest post on a lot of sites) and it’s good to see that some people are taking the time to read what is essentially 11 or 12 (or 15, where I used to work) stories worth of words.

  8. Dave McCarthy

    Im open to anyone who wishes to contact me and let me know any sentence in anything I wrote that they consider “nasty”. I won’t wait for apologies for the multiple instances when my work ethic, intelligence, background, common sense, honesty, etc. we’re impugned freely, just for not instantly agreeing with these folks.

  9. Suzanne

    Mr. McCarthy, Unfortunately, politics in the City of Norwalk seems to be a “nasty” business. It is actually unusually so in my experience of city governments. It is unnecessary to defend any of the work you do – just do it. And, as a wise person once told me, let the rest go, like “water off a duck’s back.” I honestly don’t know how you have survived this long being so sensitive to other people’s comments or to others’ thoughts about you. I don’t agree with most of what you say or do, for that matter, but I would not take that personally. Rather, you are doing work on behalf of the City that is difficult, including addressing this issue that seems to never go away. I guess as a constituent, I would rather you “stick to your knitting” about the issues. The other murky emotional stuff just clouds the progress of any process to solve a problem. Not usual on a personal level for me to make such a comment but my penny’s worth.

  10. Joe Espo

    Well, since this NancyOnNorwalk post is an assemblage of community conversation about Oak Hills, I thought I’d contribute another email conversation and comment thread that might be relevant. Here, the discussion involves a rather unique alternative that the Driving Range NIMBY Deniers are offering to suppress the Oak Hills Commission’s efforts at preventing bankruptcy and preventing the course from becoming a 145 acre homeless shelter and drug den. Sort of along the lines of Ryan Park.
    .
    The proposal from the Driving Range NIMBY Deniers is that we have a “virtual driving range.” We should build a new structure to house “driving range simulators .”
    .
    A viable alternative, no? Or is this the last refuge of a desperate insular cadre of zeolots that are not too far from admitting that they’ve lost their jihad!
    .
    http://www.thehour.com/opinion/letters/i-vote-against-building-a-driving-range-in-oak-hills/article_29e5c1e4-25a6-52b0-b331-e109501c4b98.html
    .
    .
    • Joeespo posted at 1:13 pm on Sat, Apr 27, 2013.
    There’s a reason why the Norwalk Hour poll showed over 78% are in favor of the driving range: and the reason is that Norwalkers see right through the disingenuous and dishonest arguments made by the fringe group that advocates against the driving range. But with this letter, the arguments have devolved to rank absurdity. To suggest that a patch of trees and scrub brush has an impact on the pollutants generated by I95 traffic is lunacy. I just don’t know how else to describe it. And this argument further diminishes the validity of the protest against the driving range; matter of fact, it puts the last nail in the coffin.
    I’m looking forward to the driving range. I don’t now play golf but after reading about the game and Oak Hills in all the blogs and newspapers, my wife and I have decided to take up the game. And we’ll be looking forward to having the convenience of developing our golf swing at a driving range in Norwalk and NOT have to burn gas and pollute the air on I95 travelling to a Stamford driving range. So in this way, the driving range will indeed help Norwalkers enjoy cleaner air.That should make the author of this letter really happy!
    .
    • Lily White posted at 1:28 am on Sun, Apr 28, 2013.
    In recently watching “The Golf Channel”, in flight, I saw what seems like a very fine solution that seems to have eluded many in this argument. Many courses use virtual ranges now that not only work as well as the traditional driving range, they are better. They can calculate the speed, trajectory, distance and accuracy of a shot through digital read outs in addition to analyzing what changes need to be made in order to improve one’s swing.
    This virtual driving range could be contained within a single building of modest size, could be played through winter and all hours without disturbing adjacent Oak Hills neighbors. Featured holes and screens change through out the course of play allowing for adjustments to stance and swing in “real” time.
    Why not look at this as an option? No destruction to habitat, probably cheaper in the long run given the terrain upon which the proposed driving range is being considered and a better learning experience to help improve one’s golf game or just for a warm up.
    .
    • Joeespo posted at 11:04 am on Sun, Apr 28, 2013.
    And what building is there that’s big enough to house the 20 or so individual computer simulator stations needed to adequately substitute for an open-air driving range and meet demand? Surely, you don’t advocate erecting another two million dollar building, do you? How much land would have to be cleared and set aside to build it? Where would Oak Hills get the money? –from the taxpayers? Where will Oak Hills get the tens, if not hundreds of of thousands of dollars to purchase the equipment, maintain it, troubleshoot the software and hire and train employees to do this? Wouldn’t it be the equivalent of assembling a seasonal IT department? And what of the electricity and lighting needed to run the system? What does THAT do for the environment? How much will it cost to train our golf pro to instruct on this system, assuming that he would agree to diminish his pro status and instruct with the equivalent of a glorified Wii or Xbox?
    .
    • Lily White posted at 3:14 pm on Sun, Apr 28, 2013.
    Mir. Espo, you have made some assumptions that do not take into account the equivalent costs associated with putting in a driving range in an outdoor environment with its inherent limitations due to weather and night time lighting, both prohibitive with New England winters and the neighborhood.
    I have seen and used simulators that have worked very effectively in the size of a typical single car garage space.
    “Another two million dollar building?” What about the estimates of between four and seven million just to create a “base” for the driving range in the selected location? How long for a generous company willing to take on that capital expense will it take to defray that cost before realizing any profit?
    A driving range outdoors would take additional employees to maintain and run it (unless you want your pro doing double duty but from the RFP I read education is not going to be allowed on an outdoor range at Oak Hills.)
    An indoor facility would not have to be seasonal – that’s the point. The cost of such a facility would likewise be defrayed, as theoretically and actually possible with the golf course, through fees.
    I would suggest to you that availability of employees to run the thing would not be a problem: we are in a time when children use computers at a very early age. Expertise to run IT anything is available.
    Before you dismiss this idea as the equivalent to a Wii or Xbox, rearrange your thinking and do some research. You are making assumptions that have nothing to do with the reality of computer simulation (used to train many other professions with far greater consequences if they get it wrong, like people in the military and airline pilots.)
    There is a great space for just such a building where the “bay building” for the outdoor driving range has been planned in the past. Adjacent to the restaurant, above the land fill, wide open and next to parking.
    Why are you not thinking that a company that is in the business of erecting such facilities would not consider the same type of arrangement as being conjured by the OHPA for an outdoor facility? They would realize profits sooner because of the year ’round availability to an indoor facility’s practice range, could be installed in an already available location, parking would not be at issue and, yes, even later hours could be used because an indoor facility would represent no distraction or noise to neighbors.
    The technology is better for these types of facilities and the feedback to one’s actual swing and success or not, instant. Swings are full and variable depending upon the presented situation that changes with practice per the selection of the golfer. Pro’s use these types of 21st century simulators – what is so wrong considering this for Norwalk golfers in 2013?
    .
    • Joeespo posted at 8:18 am on Mon, Apr 29, 2013.
    Well, you’ve convinced me. Matter of fact we can build a few garages around the miniature golf place at Calf pasture and put in not only a virtual driving range but also virtual fairways! But we can still keep the putting green in ACTUAL 3D!!! That’s the solution!!! Then we can shut down Oak Hills, put in some trails and let the course go back to its natural state. We’ll change the name from Oak Hills to Ryan Park West.
    .

    • Lily White posted at 10:16 am on Mon, Apr 29, 2013.
    I don’t understand your re-naming reference and sarcasm does not suit you. I am only suggesting a viable alternative to destroying ten acres of habitat that cannot be replaced. Constructive suggestions in that regard would be appreciated but, then again, you are who you are and everyone devolves into “ugly” once in a while.

    • Joeespo posted on Mon, Apr 29, 2013.

    If you believe that Socratic irony (sarcasm) is “ugly” then what you’ve done is kill the debate…sort of along the lines of calling me a racist. This discussion is over.

  11. Dave McCarthy

    Suzanne…far from it. I am rather thick skinned. I have observed that those who cannot win debates over issues with facts resort to calling people, specifically Republicans, “nasty” or “uncivil” and thereby dismiss their dominance of the facts in the discussion.

    There have been myriad stories on this, but yet, no one ever comments when these people are not even close to the boundaries of polite society. My point is that we should all be held to the same standard.

  12. Suzanne

    Of civility and true dialogue. I absolutely agree (and I don’t think it is exclusive, this silliness, to any particular party. I am a life long member of my party affiliation and the City of Norwalk makes me want to be an Independent!)

  13. Old timer

    That all year round virtual practice range sounds like an idea well worth exploring. It could require a lot less capital and lend itself to starting on a smaller scale and add additional stations as the demand develops. That may be what one of the bidders proposes.

  14. Tim T

    David McCarthy
    Not to burst your bubble but the Hour poll is a joke. If you delete cookies you can vote as much as you like. Also keep in mind the Hour gears the stories to favor the Republican agenda.

  15. LWitherspoon

    @oldtimer
    I notice that you did not respond to my comment asking you to expand on your statement which alleged that theft of funds from Oak Hills has occurred. I suppose that’s because you don’t have anything to support the allegation other than your desire to smear your political enemies. What a pity that you’ve prioritized political gain for yourself over making truthful, well-supported comments.

  16. Admo

    It is a GOLF Course! Im for the driving range.When I want to walk my dog I go elsewhere.I don’t want to get hit by a golf ball.Are we going to have picnic tables next? We have other parks and beaches to walk and enjoy nature.Why doesn’t Stamford have these problems? Norwalkers just love to fight! So dis functional!!

  17. Dave McCarthy

    Tim, my bubble remains intact. The Hour changed their system quite a while ago to make the polls more accurate, notwithstanding the selection bias. You can clear your cookies all you like, but the vote won’t budge. It’s smart enough to allow only one vote per IP Address. I suppose you can push that a little, but all else supports my conclusion.

  18. Old timer

    lwitherspoon
    I commented that a forensic audit should be done before any more money goes into the park. It seemed to do ok for many years, now it has big money problems. That may be for the reasons you seem to believe, and it may be because money is being siphoned off. A forensic audit from time to time is a good idea for any agency handling public money. Waiting until there is proof of a crime is licensing whatever is causing the money problems. Anytime the idea of a forensic, or performance, audit is ruled out as “too expensive” without consideration , and it is public money, then the need for such an audit is very clear.

  19. Bryan Meek

    Forensic audits are only conducted in matters of pending legal action. They are very, very expensive specific to the specific alleged behavior and never propose to add value in terms of what an operational audit would provide. Throwing the term around incessantly like it means something here is adding zero value to the conversation.

  20. Suzanne

    Actually, Mr. McCarthy, obtaining alternate IP addresses is pretty easy. You can route your computer through a Starbucks or McDonalds or a library and your IP identification will not remain the same.

    I am sorry to hear you are using The Hour’s decidedly unscientific and erroneous survey to base your opinion upon the Norwalk citizenry’s desire for a driving range. This is like basing the weather report on another survey from The Hour, “Are you ready for Spring?”

    I also would like to see this issue resolved – there are far too many other issues in Norwalk that need attention. The privilege of a few golfers should not be one of them.

  21. Not being a golfer, in that one would play a round, but someone who enjoys hitting a bucket of balls with my children and their friends; we look forward to having a driving range close by and not having to drive up to Ridgefield/Danbury. Bring it on!

    As for obtaining alternate IP addresses by going to Starbucks, McD’s or any other cyber cafe, that is quite a bit of work just to manipulate a survey and doubt that many people care enough to go such lengths.

  22. Dave McCarthy

    Suzanne I am laughing at the notion of a range supporter driving around Norwalk to tip an Hour poll. While possible, I’m going to stick with it.

    As far as your last comment, go ahead and move on. The OHPA is taking care of its business and this affects the average person very little.

  23. Suzanne

    The points went whoosh!, Mr. McCarthy, as in over your head (joke!) The point is that The Hour’s surveys are decidedly non-scientific (and they admit as much in their paper) and the OHPA has, in the past, mobilized the Women’s and Men’s Golf Clubs for letter-writing campaigns so why not this dubious and unscientific so-called survey?

    The point of “moving on” is for YOU as a Council person entrusted with addressing the City’s issues in all of its facets and guises. As a constituent, I get to pick and choose what issues I support or do not support: as a Council person, you must address everything. I am saying that of the 99 problems facing Norwalk today, for example, why does the OHPA continually need baby-sitting and support while other issues languish? They’ve had more than their 10 minutes: it’s time for the Council to move on.

    In addition and as an aside, you have claimed you never have supported the driving range but have supported finding data on building one. That just isn’t so – please refer to your own letter in The Hour in which you state you believe a driving range is a good idea. (Without data, without financials, without environmental impact, etc.)

  24. BARIN

    Ding ding ding!! Suzanne wins this round.

  25. David McCarthy

    Saying I said something that I didn’t actually say doesn’t win anything. My entire point was about this same group of people trying to monopolize this issue. I made mention of the fact that I used to golf and would have used a driving range. The next sentence was “Whether one can and will be built at Oak Hills remains to be seen”

    I don’t have the Hour link, but same letter on the Patch is here

    http://norwalk.patch.com/groups/editors-picks/p/letter-norwalk-s-oak-hills-authority-should-listen-cl49137963b0

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