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Norwalk Planning Commission also says ‘no’ to Oak Hills Park Authority

The Norwalk Planning Commission works on the 2016-17 capital budget Tuesday in City Hall.
The Norwalk Planning Commission works on the 2016-17 capital budget Tuesday in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. — Even the Norwalk Planning Commission does not support funding a driving range at Oak Hills Park –  at least this year, under these conditions.

“I’d love to do it I just don’t see how we can accommodate them,” Commissioner Joel Zaremby said at the outset of a discussion that ended with a recommendation not to fund the $3 million request.

The Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) recommends considering a driving range, Commissioner Victor Cavallo said.

“Just because in the POCD does not mean that it’s a good idea,” Commissioner Steve Ferguson said.

Cavallo campaigned hard for the driving range, saying it would provide a revenue stream for the Oak Hills Park Authority and that other city parks get bonded for much money without paying their own way. A lot of the “noise” around the issue is “not very rational,” he said, going on the mention that some feel the course should be made a 9-hole course or that the course should be eliminated because of pesticide use.

“It would certainly raise the value of Oak Hills as part of Norwalk’s recreation. If it’s not done this year I don’t see how it’s going to be done in the next five years with $106 million having to be spent for the facilities study for the Board of Ed,” Cavallo said.

Commissioner Walter McLaughlin said the driving range, a.k.a. “golf school,” is a great idea.

“If we give our kids a chance, maybe they can turn out some great golfers in this town,” McLaughlin said. “They should have a chance to learn instead of, ‘Oh, I have to go to Stamford’… It’s not fair to the young people in the town.”

“It’s about time we went ahead with this amenity,” Commissioner Bill Dunne said.

Vice Chairwoman Frances DiMeglio read a passage from the National Golf Foundation study saying that the proposed site has “insurmountable” challenges.

Planning Committee capital 16-0216 Norwalk 089
Norwalk Planning Commissioner Victor Cavallo tries to persuade fellow commissioners that the Oak Hills Park Authority’s $3 million request to fund a driving range should be approved, Tuesday in City Hall.

Cavallo reminded everyone that the public outcry had prompted the choice of location, as the woods were deemed undoable.

“That’s where the proposal that has been submitted it,” Commissioner David Davidson said. “That’s where the costs are questionable. Considering our budgetary limitations I don’t favor supporting the range at this time.”

The Authority should seek “external funding,” he said, suggesting that the Authority would have success with that if the city relieved it of the “present costs of carrying the restaurant.”

“If they went to the bank today nobody would fund the money,” Astrom said.

The city, under Mayor Harry Rilling’s direction, recently refinanced the Authority’s loans and eliminated a requirement that the Authority deposit money into a reserve account as a cushion against possible difficulty, refunding the money that had already been deposited.

Davidson asked why a lender would refuse to fund a project that is economically viable.

Cavallo said the Authority cannot get external financing. OHPA Chairman Ernie DesRochers said no bank would fund it, he said.

“They failed,” DiMeglio said.

Davidson pressed, alleging that eliminating the restaurant debt would solve the problem.

To say that no bank would lend is incorrect, Ferguson said.

“There are state and federal agencies that can assist a business owner or interested party in structuring a pay down of debt,” Ferguson said.

“The problem is they have no collateral,” Astrom said.

Oak Hills is having a good year because of weather and a banker wouldn’t buy that, he said, later saying that “global warming” is not something to rely upon.

Cavallo said the city would be using its great credit rating to help Oak Hills, not buy a driving range.

“If they can’t pay it back the city is liable for it,” Zaremby said.

“To me, it’s staying at zero,” DiMeglio said as the debate continued. “… As the chairman said, if the banks won’t put any trust in it, why should the taxpayers?”

“I think there’s multiple agencies that would love to sponsor an undertaking like this,” Ferguson said.

The city has the lowest interest rate available and a commercial loan would be astronomical, Cavallo said.

The charter prohibits using the city’s property as collateral for a loan, he said.

Astrom made the motion to follow Barron’s recommendation, not fund it based on their lack of ability to pay the loan, but urge them to come back.

“It will never get done after this year, not with $106 million facing us,” Cavallo said.

Cavallo and Ferguson said they abstained, but backed off as the Commission operates on consensus, without a record of who voted for what.

“I think you’re right but I am very disappointed,” Zaremby said.

The site might look good from a distance but it’s “only rocks,” Astrom said, agreeing that it’s disappointing.

It was suggested that it be put in, to let the Council take it out.

DiMeglio said she couldn’t support it.

“The Plan of Conservation, to your point, it’s not a good plan. … Nobody answered the questions I had,” DiMeglio said, ending the conversation with, “The ‘insurmountable,’ nobody can explain that.”

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