By Diane Lauricella
NORWALK, Conn. – The irony is obvious: the city is hosting its 6th Tree Festival today, a wonderful event I have participated in for all previous five years, educating the public about the benefit of trees. But simultaneous to that I am wondering – why has most of our administration and city government structure decided to remain silent about protecting the last stand of nine acres of trees, bird habitat and wetland area on Oak Hills public land?
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 Plan of Conservation and Development (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.
In addition, There are several other city entities that have decided to hide their heads in the sand instead of proactively reviewing alternative driving range locations and financial feasibility, the Tree Advisory Committee, the Planning Commission (in charge of our Master Plan of Conservation and Development). Their minutes fail to show that reasonable due diligence has been done concerning this project and that the checks and balances are in place.
A cover-up or just bad governance?
The Conservation Commission has done nothing to correct misleading and patently false information is in an official Oak Hills Park Authority letter sent to the West Norwalk Association on Dec. 21, 2012. That letter remains on the WNA website, although I informed Co-President McLeod at least two months ago that the misleading statement, which claims that OHPA and the Conservation Commission have been “working closely,” and asked her to remove it. It still remains and is apparently being used to inform West Norwalk citizens about an issue without any “warning language” about the falsehoods, proven months ago. I am frankly puzzled about why the WNA did not ask the OHPA to withdraw this letter and why the WNA did not feel in any way mislead by the OHPA. If any reasonable citizen or city official read the sentence in paragraph five, they would have been mislead to feel somewhat relieved that the Conservation Commission, charged in the City Charter with protecting the entire city’s open space habitats, were handling the environmental concerns.
I showed the false OHPA letter to the Conservation Commission senior environmental officer and a commissioner, and requested in writing that they discuss the entire matter so that the OHPA be made to review alternatives first, not last. They agreed that they had NOT been “working closely” with the OHPA on this project, yet remained publicly silent instead of telling the public that OHPA had mislead the WNA and others about the Conservation Commission’s involvement. The commission, instead of being proactive by trying to discuss if driving range alternatives were present FIRST, not LAST, months ago when the OHPA floated the driving range location at the last nine acres of Norwalk public park woodland habitat, has appeared to shirk its charter-born duty of protecting city resources and acting as a check and balance for development projects.
For the record, I am not opposed to a driving range if it is feasible, I just am opposed to the current location being pushed by the OHPA, nine acres of hundreds of trees. When I first saw th West Norwalk Association survey solicitation in The Hour, I thought “it’s about time” that the WNA attempt to provide a forum for citizens other than their own board members to weigh in. I would have liked them to discuss this issue more fully months ago, and have grave concerns about how the driving range issue is now being represented on their website. How can West Norwalk citizens make an informed decision about the driving range when one of the letters offered contains proven false , misleading sentences?
The usual city professional, appointed and elected “checks and balances” that could have helped the OHPA evaluate alternative driving range locations, marketing opportunities and financial plans have not shown their willingness take responsibility.
I cannot attend the tree festival this year due to a professional lead abatement licensing exam also held today, but hope this project will be put on “pause” and sent back to the management drawing board.