Pave Norwalk paradise … put up a parking lot … er, a driving range

Dianne Lauricella OHPA op-ed 006
Diane Lauricella thinks that the governmental bodies of Norwalk, which has again been named Tree City USA, are delinquent in their duties to protect the last remaining woodland at Oak Hills Park.

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.

Diane Lauricella


9 responses to “Pave Norwalk paradise … put up a parking lot … er, a driving range”

  1. M. Murray

    Coverup or just bad judgement? Maybe all these commissions looked at the situation and felt that this was the best decision for the City. Maybe a majority of Norwalk is either in favor of the driving range or don’t care either way. Maybe the percentage if Norwalk residents that oppose this is so small that they could be wrong on the issue? If a majority of Norwalkers were against this proposal, I am sure that it would not have moved forward.

    PS- I am not a golfer…..yet

  2. Suzanne

    “If a majority of Norwalkers were against this proposal, I am sure that it would not have moved forward.”
    Wow, M. Murray, I sincerely wish you were right about that. I have been a golfer and have played the front and back nine of Oak Hills numerous times. So have many, many golfers since 1967. I love the game and I love to watch it.

    However, this driving range thing is not about ammending an already beautiful facility that hasn’t had this particular perk since its inception. It is about the OHPA’s misplaced idea that another asset will improve their management.

    They have taken out many loans and are under water in their repayment. Instead of concentrating on getting more rounds to earn more fees to support the course, they are spending their energy on obtaining something else to manage. They are already mis-managing the one thing for which they are responsible to make work: the golf course. Why would we reward them with the destruction of habitat to put in another facility for which they are unable to manage the income? Why have they not done a speck of due diligence in determining whether they are going to obtain the big bucks they are looking for with a driving range?

    For all of this, they have rallied the troops and, yet, if you look at the threads, and they are numerous, on the various letters sent to The Hour, you will see the same names for the driving range over and over and, likewise, those against it but, increasingly, more names against it for all the right reasons.

    You are a taxpayer like me. Why are we continually assisting a private park (you nor I cannot access it unless we pay the fees to play golf) for a few golfers when other pressures for the City affect our tax base? I, for one, a taxpayer, don’t want one more loan given to this OHPA for the game of golf. I don’t want the woods destroyed.

    It is possible to be a golfer, a conservationist and against this driving range and a citizen of Norwalk who researched the details. Most Norwalkers, I imagine, are too busy protecting their slice of the pie, working hard, sending their kids to school, active with families and groups not the golf course. That does not make this give any less significant to every taxpayer.

  3. oldtimer

    Taxpayers rely heavily on the various boards, committees, and commissions Dianne mentions to protect their interests in City parklands. It is sad to see those commissions, committees, and boards sit on their hands when an issue like the driving range is on the table. A driving range may be a good idea, but where it is built, and how it effects the park lands environment, are serious questions that need to be resolved before any contracts are signed.
    A non-golfer, reading all the stories and comments, gets the impression the “fix is in” and the driving range is all but an accomplished fact. Too bad, but I am sure it will be an issue in the campaign. There may still be time to do it right.

  4. Carl S.

    When the driving range is built – and it will be built – those trees will make a for few fine pianos, or some fine cabinetry or birdhouses, maybe some outdoor furniture.. or some great looking mulch. Perhaps Diane can direct City officials to have the wood used to build the Mosque in native West Norwalk wood. Nothing will go to waste. Can’t wait to hear the glorious sound of chainsaws.

  5. Suzanne

    While provocative, Carl S., your desire to see the destruction of woodlands and the erection of a facility that has no discernible advantage except to a very few of the entire citizenry makes no sense. Especially since this Authority has increasingly relied on loans from the City that ultimately adversely affects every taxpayer. Old timer, I hope you can keep the faith that wiser heads will prevail.

  6. Charles

    The people that are making the most noise and trying to get any help they can from anywhere is the 20 or so people from the friends of oak hills. The range will only get built if it is built with private money , no tax payer funds. There will be no city money used to build the range. I am not sure there is any clearer way to say it but all the naysayers seem to miss this fact or are trying to scare anyone who doesn’t have an opinion over to their side. All these letters make it sound like this is the last stand of trees on the golf course which they are not. If 10%of the population plays golf and 20 people are against this I think the amount of people that would use the range is in the majority not the elite few. This upgrade to the golf course to make it a complete golfing facility will only enhance the course and bring more golfers in.

  7. Suzanne

    My understanding from the OHPA is that the range is getting built in order to help defray the costs of running an 18 hole golf course, something that has been done without a driving range since its inception. It comes down to values: why should the citizenry of Norwalk give up a valued habitat for a game, a driving range, which has never had to have this amenity in the past in order to run successfully? Bad management should not be rewarded with new assets.

  8. EDR

    Other than most of the comments being hyperbole and not based on any facts whatsoever I love the piece by Diane and the follow up comments. It shows that freedom of speech is alive and well in Norwalk! Good for all of you for continuing the debate. It makes for truly entertaining reading.

  9. BARIN

    Bring back Grillo!

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