NORWALK, Conn. — Appearances to the contrary, Oak Hills Park Authority members would like Norwalk to bond the construction of a driving range – this year.
Although Director of Management and Budgets Bob Barron said at Thursday’s Common Council Finance Committee meeting that the Authority had missed the deadline to put in a capital budget request for a driving range, Authority members said they had sent in an email two days ahead of time. Authority Chairman Ernie DesRochers argued for the range, casting aspersions on the “generally OK” independent feasibility study done by the National Golf Foundation and saying a site survey needs to be done.
This led to some angry words being exchanged between Barron and Desrochers on the steps in the Council chambers after the meeting adjourned.
Barron said he had been thrown under the bus in public.
“You know what I didn’t stand up there and say? How many times … (you) said, ‘If this report says this thing isn’t going to make money I’ll be the first one to shut up.’ But you haven’t shut up. You’re still proposing something that is marginally profitable, to the tune of $2 to $3 million dollars. So if you want to throw me under the bus, I’ll be happy to trade punches with you.”
They went into the hallway to continue their discussion.
The committee first listened to Barron summarize the study that was delivered by Richard Singer of the National Golf Foundation in December.
Barron quoted Singer as saying the driving range as planned would be “incredibly expensive” to build in the spot selected by OHPA.
“He also had some concerns on whether it would fit,” Barron said. “… He talked to one of the architects, the one that I think was involved with the original master plan; he says, ‘You’re right, I don’t think it will work,’ but the new architect, the one that was engaged to actually help build the driving range, thought it would fit.”
“My recommendation is you go out and you find out whether it will fit and if there are any alternative locations where you can bring the developmental costs down,” Barron said.
But OHPA had not filed a driving range request for the 2016-17 capital budget, Barron said.
“I am making my recommendation by Feb. 1 on what the capital budget can be. I cannot add a project that was not requested of me,” Barron said. “The mayor is the only one that can add a project that was not requested by a department head.”
Mayor Harry Rilling had been at the meeting but left. Asked by NancyOnNorwalk about this comment by email, he replied, “After reviewing the consultant’s report, I have several questions that need to be answered before I can make an informed decision.”
During the meeting, DesRochers said he thought Singer had erred to the conservative side when it came to potential profits.
“Building it without lights, when your chief competitor has lights, is almost a complete waste of time, I would think, because you need to meet the competition in order to be successful,” DesRochers said.
There’s a “huge disagreement” between Singer and the “original architect who laid it out” DesRochers said, necessitating a survey, which OHPA would pay for, DesRochers said.
“It’s tight, but it fits. It doesn’t lay out the same way that people have made an argument about,” DesRochers said.
- “We tried to locate it to placate the entire community. Maybe that was our mistake, but we tried to put it in an area that would have minimal impact on surrounding property owners. Closest house was 1,000 feet away. When it was originally planned, which would have been the cheapest alternative, it was planned on 16 and 17. Obviously that created a lot of issues for people because that was too close to houses. It was put behind the restaurant. That didn’t work because people were upset about its locations to houses and the fact that there were walking trails back there. So I think as an Authority we have tried to do everything to placate everybody, to put it in a location that makes sense.”
- “I think the amenity it provides the park, and what it does for Oak Hills in terms of taking it to a level that no one even thought of five years ago, is pretty amazing. What you would have is probably one of the best municipal golf courses in state of Connecticut.”
- “You are still going to have 50-60-70-80,000 people a year using a driving range. We put turf football fields in, $1.5 million or $2 million a clip, and they’re generally not open to public. They’re generally open to select group of students and athletes in which the bill is entirely footed by the taxpayers.”
Lights on the course would be state-of-the-art LED bulbs, pointing down, DesRochers said, in answer to questions from the committee. “There’s no kind of leaking out of the lights, so you’d never see it,” he said.
Singer’s report didn’t recognize the “really novel design,” which includes “using the rock they would mine out of there as the base for what they would put in,” DesRochers said.
Councilman John Igneri (D-District E) asked if Oak Hills was proposing something, and DesRochers repeated his criticisms of the study. Igneri asked again, and DesRochers said a capital budget request had been sent in.
“I know we did because I was copied on the email that Mr. Shelley Guyer sent out, and it was way before it was due,” DesRochers said.
Guyer said it was sent two days ahead of the Dec. 7 deadline.
“This is the first I am hearing of that, but I am happy to check our files,” Barron said.
“I know we sent it. We would like to proceed with it,” DesRochers said.
Igneri asked if Oak Hills would make adjustments to its plans.
“We have to have site surveyed to make sure it fits on it,” DesRochers said.
The Authority had worked on the assumption that the people who drew the plan up knew what they were doing, DesRochers said.
“One is a golf course architect, the other is a landscape architect, so I figure the two of them figured it out,” DesRochers said. “But you are right, we don’t have a surveyor. But one of the things we are looking to do is hire a surveyor and make sure it fits out there.”
The Authority is “well under way” on using the $1.5 million grant from the state, with plans to start work on the nature center in June, DesRochers said.
Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) asked DesRochers if the Authority has a Plan B.
Desrochers talked about how well Stamford’s driving range has done and the interest millennials have in practicing for sports.
“Barring that, how do you achieve a least part of that goal?” Kimmel pressed.
“We have had some discussions on what we would do, definitely. … We could figure something out, but I think from the same standpoint, too, I think our approach has been from day one if you are going to do something you do it right,” DesRochers said. “That’s what we are trying to do.”
“Fair enough,” Kimmel said. “The discussion will continue, I am sure. I have no problem with that.”