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Norwalk Planning Commission OK’s Oak Hills master plan

Oak Hills Park Authority Ad Hoc Driving Range Committee Chairman Ernie Desrochers
Oak Hills Park Authority Ad Hoc Driving Range Committee Chairman Ernie Desrochers talks to the Norwalk Planning Commission Monday in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – The second of three hurdles was jumped Monday by the Oak Hills Park Authority in its quest to spend $1.5 million of state money as its recently drafted master plan was approved by the Planning Commission, over the objections of a small group of stalwart opponents.

“This is a sad day,” Diane Lauricella said, after planning commissioners unanimously approved the plan without a public hearing.

“(The master plan is) not just about the driving range, like some people lead you to believe it is,” OHPA Ad Hoc Driving Range Committee Chairman Ernie Desrochers told the commission. “It’s about the entire park, and what we are trying to do to make it one of the finest regional golf facilities and park facilities there is. I really feel with all the work that Jim and his partners has done and what the Oak Hills Park Authority has done, executing on this plan, in a year from now no one will recognize the place. They’ll just think it is, I think, a truly, truly great golf course, which I think it can be.”

The State Bond Commission, led by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, recently agreed to give Oak Hills $1.5 million for the master plan on the request of state Rep. Larry Cafero (R-142). The awarding of that money is contingent on the city approving the master plan.

Now that the Planning Commission has OK’d the master plan, the only step left is for the Common Council to approve it.

The grant money will be used for everything except the driving range, a.k.a. Golf Learning Center, Desrochers said. The driving range is expected to cost $2.8 million, so the $1.5 million would only get the authority part of the way there. The rest of the master plan, including course upgrades, is expected to cost $1.7 million, so most of it can be done, he said.

Planning Commission Chairman Torgny Astrom said he and other commissioners had spent a fair amount of time studying the plan. He called it “ambitious.”

a
Planning Commission Chairman Torgny Astrom asks questions about the Oak Hills Park master plan Monday in City Hall.

“If you could improve this as you have laid out and finance it by the same means, i.e. borrow the funds that you will then be able to service the debt, I think it would be a tremendous asset to the city and addition to the parks and recreation system we have in the city and I think it could indeed be a generator of money at the same time as residents would enjoy it. So I am in favor of the plan,” Astrom said.

One thing – the plan gets an E-minus because all of the financial figures are projections, Astrom said. Desrochers agreed it needs some historical data in it.

The driving range, a.k.a. Golf Learning Center, would include three practice bays that would completely analyze a golfer’s swing. There will be practice greens and bunkers, he said.

Desrochers said that research shows that the “millennial generation,” those born approximately between 1980 and 2000, love to practice. “It was drilled into their minds when they were little kids,” he said.

The Golf Learning Center, and the improved tennis facility, would likely attract them, he said. “What we are trying to do is to create a learning environment in all aspects,” he said.

Oak Hills Park Authority Ad Hoc Driving Range Committee Chairman Ernie Desrochers
Oak Hills Park Authority Ad Hoc Driving Range Committee Chairman Ernie Desrochers talks to the Norwalk Planning Commission Monday in City Hall.

He compared the 50-year-old park to a ’69 Chevy Malibu, which once looked nice but needs to be restored. “It’s not going to be a Mercedes. It’s not going to be a BMW. In fact, it’s not even going to be a Cadillac. It’s a Chevy Malibu and what we are trying to do is restore it back,” Desrochers said. That will increase demand and revenue, he said.

“I agree with you, but over the years we remark on a lot of things that maybe should have been done in the ’80s and ’90s,” Commissioner Walter McLaughlin said.

“I don’t disagree with you,” Desrochers said. “That’s the past. We are looking to the future… I have to give the elected leaders of this town some credit, they have put some really good people on the Authority. In think this is the best golf authority they have had in the 16 years it has existed.”

When it came time for the commission to vote, Lauricella asked for a point of order and asked Astrom to table the motion to allow for a public hearing.

“It wasn’t discussed during your committee meeting and usually these things are,” she said.

Astrom said no.

Next with a point of order was Paul Cantor. He protested that he had tried to send a letter to the commission over the weekend and they hadn’t gotten it. They said they had.

“Nice try,” Planning and Zoning Director Mike Greene said.

The unanimous vote done, Lauricella said, “This is a sad day.”

“They won’t even read the resolution into the record,” Diane Cece said.

Asked later why the vote was sad, Lauricella said, “The good people of the Planning Commission didn’t appear to read the document called the city Plan of Conservation and Development, which is one of their main duties in the city of Norwalk. If they had read it and compared it with the process of this Oak Hills master plan and compared line by line with what is demanded in the Plan of Conservation and Development … they would have found that they at least needed to spend a little more time, and not rush through and approve it right away.”

While Greene has called the POCD only a guidance document that is full of contradictions, Lauricella said many citizens put a lot of time into it. Some neighborhoods made mini-master plans, she said.

“We were just asking them to take some time, maybe have a public hearing, and table it. So it’s a sad day because of that. They are a Planning Commission and they didn’t seem to be as interested in the planning process,” Lauricella said.

“We are very pleased that we received bipartisan approval of our master plan from the Planning Commission this evening,” Desrochers said later in an email. “It is an ambitious plan, but the support we have gotten from the Oak Hills Park community and the unanimous support of both the Planning and Zoning commissions shows there is strong support of our vision for Oak Hills. Coupled with our grant from the state of Connecticut for park improvements, our goal of making Oak Hills a premier multi-use park is inching closer to reality. We look forward to working with the Common Council and the mayor for the timely approval of our master plan.”

Comments

43 responses to “Norwalk Planning Commission OK’s Oak Hills master plan”

  1. TomReynolds

    First hurdle was the OHPA creating the plan and amending it after the two public hearings and passing it 6 – 1. Second hurdle was the unanimous approval from Zoning. Third hurdle was getting the State of Connecticut to see something that would be beneficial for one of its major communities and giving them $1.5mm. Fourth hurdle was the unamimous approval of Planning last night.
    I only hope the Common Council has the vision that all of these other parties have and also approve the plan. As was said in this article, the plan is not about any estimated price tag associated with it. It is about doing what is right for Oak Hills.

  2. Casey Smith

    “This is a sad day,” Diane Lauricella said, after planning commissioners unanimously approved the plan without a public hearing…“We were just asking them to take some time, maybe have a public hearing, and table it. So it’s a sad day because of that. They are a Planning Commission and they didn’t seem to be as interested in the planning process,” Lauricella said.
    .
    That’s odd. I went to a public hearing on the Oak Hills Master Plan back in May. I thought I saw you there, Diane, but maybe I was mistaken.
    https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2014/05/oak-hills-driving-range-looking-like-its-years-away/
    .
    Just typing in “Oak Hills” into the NON brought up 4 pages of articles on Oak Hills, and discounting the ones where NON held a fund raiser there, and the current article, I counted 49, most of which were written this year. I would almost hazard a guess that Oak Hills is either tied with NEON or a very close second runner up for the most frequent topic on NON.
    .
    How many meetings, hearings, discussions, letters to the editor and articles are needed for this? It’s been discussed by the public ad nauseam and doesn’t need to be tabled. I would chance to say that the Oak Hills Board and the Planning Commission is well aware of how you feel, Diane, along with Paul Cantor and Scott Kimmish. You’ve made your viewpoint known and unfortunately, the Planning Commission disagreed. Time to move on!

  3. piberman

    A public hearing questioning the consultants ambitious projections would have been helpful in allowing for thoughtful discussion. But this is Norwalk so we know the end result is usually known in advance. Would Rep. Cafero have secured the “gift” without the end game known ?

  4. peter parker

    It is time to clean house in our City government. Wake up Norwalk!

  5. Yvonne Lopaur

    Last night the chairman of planning commission demonstrated contempt for a member of the public.

    The members of the Planning Commission email addresses are not available on the city’s website. So Paul Cantor emailed a letter to Michael Greene, the director of the Zoning and Planning Department, asking him to pass it on to members of the commission. Since Mr. Greene did not reply to the email Mr. Cantor handed the letter to the members who showed up early. They thanked him and made it clear they had not seen it before. Other copies of the letter were put on the table for members who arrived later. One of those members who came later then removed those copies from the table leaving the impression that the members of the Commission were not to read or consider its contents because it had not been vetted previously.

    Hence, when Mr. Cantor asked why Mr. Greene had not distributed the letter to others the chairman of the commission declared that in fact the letter had been emailed to members of the commission. “Nice try,” he then commented contemptuously as if Mr. Cantor was trying to subvert the workings of the commission.

    The letter Mr. Cantor distributed (https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2014/08/letter-planning-commission-should-turn-down-oak-hills-plan/) pointed that the so called Master Plan is not a document that is based on the preferences of taxpayers obtained through a survey. Clearly, the first step for any Master Plan for a park should be to ascertain those preferences. But the first step for the Oak Hills Park Authority was to ask a recently established private sector firm to come up with a plan to construct a large commercial driving range in the Park. Consequently nothing in the plan takes into account the impact that the driving range will have on the environment, the residential quality of the neighborhood in which the park is situated, or access to the park for those who do not play golf.

    Below are the five points made by Mr. Cantor in his letter. Not one of those points was addressed at last night’s meeting. Instead the meeting focused on revenue streams as if the primary purpose of the city should be to run commercial enterprises in a public park in order to subsidize a golf course that makes nearly all of the park inaccessible to those who do not play golf.

    As Mr. Cantor put it, The Oak Hills Park Master Plan:

    1. Was developed behind closed doors without any substantive attempt to involve a representative cross section of citizens in the process.

    2. Was not developed with the help of a professional planner selected by means of a competitive process. Instead the OHPA chose Total Driving Range Solutions, a recently established firm in Norwalk that seeks to construct a driving range in Oak Hills Park, to help draw up the plan.
    3. Calls for the construction of a large commercial driving range that encroaches on open space in Oak Hills Park.

    4. Does not take into account the effect increased traffic and noise associated with the proposed driving range might have on the residential quality of the West Norwalk neighborhood in which the Park is situated.

    5. Does not stipulate how hazardous chemicals used to maintain the golf course will be handled.

  6. Peter

    I do not believe there has been anything like adequate Public input to the Oak Hills Master Plan.
    Today, 8/12/14, the Hour editorial listed Norwalk’s fine Public Parks and neglected to even mention Oak Hills Park – the second largest. What is going on here?
    Let’s have a proper process here. Norwalk Citizen-owners of Oak Hills Park are being ignored.

  7. M. Murray’s

    I don’t think anyone has actually studied how many people use the walking trails. Is this just a dozen people per day or hundreds?

  8. Paul Cantor

    In the picture accompanying this article you see Jim Downing, the head of Total Driving Range Solutions, standing behind Ernie DesRochers of the Oak Hills Authority. Together they authored what is billed as a Master Plan but is primarily an appeal for a loan that will be used to finance a large commercial driving range constructed by Mr. Downing in Oak Hills Park. Mr. Downing has no experience building and operating a driving range. Total Driving Range Solutions was not even established until 2011. Nevertheless if you go to its web site at http://www.totaldrivingrangesolutions.com/index.html you will find this quote from Mr. DesRochers:

    “The TDRS team helped us define the opportunity at our facility and then helped us develop a very creative solution that had to please a broad constituency. TDRS demonstrated their skills and professionalism throughout the demanding RFP and Master Plan processes. They are easy to work with and were willing to go that extra mile when needed – which made our job easier. We are excited as we move forward with them in the coming months.” Ernie DesRochers, Oak Hills Park Golf Authority.

    Also on the Total Driving Range Solutions web site you will find Jim Downing’s bio. http://www.totaldrivingrangesolutions.com/bios.html After Mr. Downing failed to obtain a loan from the private sector to construct a driving range in Oak Hills Park he and Mr. DesRochers came up with the Master Plan. If approved the Master Plan will result in taxpayers loaning the Oak Hills Park Authority millions to hire him to construct his first major project. That will be a coup for Mr. Downing. But if the OHPA is unable to make good on the loan taxpayers will end up holding the bag.

    So will the OHPA be able to make good on the loan? There used to be a driving range in Norwalk across from where Costco is now located. It folded. That and the fact that Mr. Downing could not obtain a loan from the private sector should give city officials who are thinking of approving the Downing/DesRochers plan pause. It is not a plan for a public park that began by surveying the public to determine how Oak Hills Park should be managed. It is not, in other words, a genuine Master Plan prepared by a professional. Rather it is a proposal whose underlying premise is that a driving range constructed by Mr. Downing will be the answer to the OHPA’s financial problems.

    The OHPA’s financial problems are due to a restaurant that can’t make good on the loan the OHPA was given to construct it and a golf course that can’t cover its operating and maintenance costs. Now what the Downing/DesRochers proposal offers taxpayers is a large money losing commercial driving range to go with its money losing restaurant and golf course.

  9. TomReynolds

    Paul – You talk of what happens if the OHPA fails. What happens if Oak Hills makes good on any loan and goes on to be the most profitable of all Norwalk parks? Actually, it may almost be that. I also, believe that Mr. DeRochers authored the plan with the help of other Authority members, not Mr. Downing. Once again, you are spitting out false facts. AND . . . once again, the Master Plan has nothing to do with loans or financing or grants. It is a plan that lays out all good things that can be done to the current property to make it even better for the citizens of Norwalk.

    Peter – it’s probably not list as a park because it does not fall under the domain of Parks & Rec. It is a standalone Authority.

  10. Suzanne

    This is like any out-sourced entity working with the City of Norwalk writing their own contract and setting the terms for Norwalk for themselves. Can’t ANYONE see the conflict of interest here? Can’t ANYONE see that being “in bed” with that contractor to produce such a contract is not of service to the best interests of Norwalk, but to the best profit margin for the contractor? Geez, Louise. (No offense to any Louises out there.) Maybe Mr. DeRochers just feels comfortable with TDRS. Well, Hal Alvord feels comfortable with City Carting and we don’t like him making no-bid contracts with them either. When is the same standard for “Master Planning” going to apply to OHPA? This “process” they are following, shame on the Planning Commission, is a capitulation to profit and willfulness over the democratic process in place for all Norwalk citizens.

  11. Mea

    As a taxpayer, I find the analogy about the old car ridiculous, when you look at the schools right around the block that desperately need to be updated.

  12. Tom Reynolds

    Suz – I believe any construction that may be done can only go out to City-approved contractors and multiple proposals are required. So, once again, a misleading statement by the opponents of Oak Hills.

  13. Chevy Vega

    I have a question for Ernie. Will she be a convertible or a hard top?

  14. Paul Cantor

    Tom, in response to your question: A public park is not a commercial enterprise. Nevertheless, the Downing/DesRochers (D/D) proposal billed as a Master Plan begins (on page 7) by stating, “The City of Norwalk is in the Recreation business.” The implication is that the city runs its parks as commercial enterprises. But taxpayers don’t want or expect their government to compete with private sector enterprises or golf courses. With respect to Oak Hills the implicit contract taxpayers have with golfers is: go ahead and utilize most of the land in the park for a golf course as long as user fees cover its costs. Unfortunately, user fees no longer cover its costs and so the D/D proposal calls for nearly $1,000,000 in loans to upgrade the course in addition to the millions it wants to borrow from taxpayers to construct the driving range. The need for that loan is a reflection that the demand to play 18 rounds of golf by resident golfers no longer can cover its costs. So what you and other golfers are calling for is additional taxpayer subsidies to cover the difference between the cost of the golf course and the revenues generated from user fees.

    Below is a letter that appeared in The Hour on Jan 15, 2013 that may help you understand the difference between a public park and a golf course within a public park.

    Dear Editor:

    Dr. Jesus F Yap Jr. asks Professor Cantor how public parks differ from golf courses.

    The answer has to do with exclusion. People are allowed to use public parks in a variety of ways. They may hike, play frisbee, or have a picnic. They also generally do not have to pay for a walk in the park. Of course, public parks do have rules excluding certain activities, but those rules are far less exclusionary than the rules at golf courses and driving ranges. There you must pay to enter, and you are allowed to play golf and not do much else

    This level of exclusion might be deemed acceptable if the fees charged for golfing covered the expense of maintaining the golf course. After all, one of the activities typically excluded from the public park is golfing. So, one might argue that a section of a very large public park should be reserved for deserving, underserved golfers. However, when the market demand for golfing is too low to support a golf course financially, then the granting of such rights is very costly for the non-golfing public. They must give up access and financial resources.

    As Dr. Yap puts it in his letter public parks contribute to the quality of life in a community. We all benefit. A golf course, on the other hand, provides value to a small segment of the community. Furthermore, we can measure this value by the revenues the golf course generates. These revenues show what people are willing to pay for golfing. If we take those revenues and subtract the costs of operating the golf course, we get a measure of the net benefit (or net value) of the golf course to the community (excluding any externalities). If the net benefit turns out to be negative, then we would need to have a very compelling reason to use public land as a golf course. We would need to be convinced that the rights of golfers supersede the rights of non-golfers to such an extent that a subsidy should go from the latter to the former.

    Sincerely yours,

    Yvonne Lopaur
    Roger Sparks, Ph. D

  15. Debora

    @TR,
    Once again you compare oak hills to other parks and compare profitability. This is a completely false premise because the parks are not meant to be money makers. They are public commons funded by taxes. Oak hills was chartered to be run by a self-funding authority which means it is required to be profitable and that includes servicing its own debt. It has never done this without assistance from the city.
    .
    And the ad hoc driving range committee consisted of only two people, meeting privately to rvade FOI scrutiny. Once Mr. Downimg’s firm was selected, he “threw in” master planning services. This is the conflict, since his MP did not start from a naked premise of what the park needs as a whole. It instead assumed a driving range as a financial necessity and built a MP accordingly.
    .
    and while others contributed to the MP, the vociferous objections to the process by others were ignored.

  16. Suzanne

    “Coupled with our grant from the state of Connecticut for park improvements, our goal of making Oak Hills a premier multi-use park is inching closer to reality. ”
    *
    Let me get this straight, funding from the State of CT which is funded by us, the taxpayers, in order to operate (whatever the form it takes, it ultimately comes down to tax dollars) as well as proposed loans from the City will allow Oak Hills to become “multi-use” which, I am assuming means it will now have multiple uses for golfers in a driving range and a golf course.
    *
    With each approval of this “Master Plan” prepared by the vendor of the golfing range that did not go through the Master Plan process as is required of every other Park in Norwalk, the City is saying, as Mea pointed out above:
    *
    Schools are not important. Golf is.
    *
    Road improvements are not important. Golf is.
    *
    Needed Signal lights at dangerous intersections are not important. Golf is.
    *
    Crumbling sidewalks, lack of proper pedestrian crossings and signals are not important. Golf is.
    *
    All of the other parks in the entire community, especially those in poor areas like Ryan Park are not important enough to merit improvement. Golf is.
    *
    It is a sad day when a few individuals who already have the privilege of exclusively using a gorgeous and precious piece of land to the exclusion of all citizens, TAKE from the limited resources of Norwalk to support its community for their GAME.
    I like golf but enough is enough.

  17. TomReynolds

    The driving range will not be a “commercial” enterprise. It will be a “public” enterprise. The money it makes will go directly back into improving the park. It will prevent Oak Hills from ever having “take taxpayer money”, something you have repeated over and over again, whcih is also false.

  18. TomReynolds

    Suz – missing the point again.
    The state has programs for all of those other ‘needs’ that you state. I agree, those need help, too. But the money the state gave Oak Hills comes from a portion of the state budget that must specifically be used for parks throughout the state. They saw Oak Hills as deserving of that money. Oak Hills cannot use the money on anything other than the park.
    Once again, the Master Plan was devised by the OHPA, not the vendor of the driving range. Why do you keep stating this false fact? Is it just so that you can have some arguement against Oak Hills.

    Debora – I think you have been listening to Cantor’s “facts” too long without doing any research of your own. We have to stop following the court jester and look into the facts.

  19. Paul Cantor

    Mr. Reynolds: Who is stating false facts?

    You wrote: “Once again, the Master Plan was devised by the OHPA, not the vendor of the driving range. Why do you keep stating this false fact? Is it just so that you can have some arguement against Oak Hills.”

    This from the OHPA March 20, 2014 Minutes available of the city’s web site.

    “Mr. Mount noted that the chairman of the Master Plan Committee, Mr. DesRochers, couldn’t attend tonight’s meeting. Mr. Mount distributed a copy of the Strategic Plan: A Roadmap to the Authority Members and noted that he emailed the report as well and has received some comments on it. Mr. Mount stated that it represents how the chairman wants to move forward and includes Total Driving Range Solutions qualifications and references. He stated that OHPA was the one to initiate a conversation about writing a master plan and requested TDRS develop the OHP master plan.”

  20. Mr. Cantor,

    Part of your letter had this statement:

    “There used to be a driving range in Norwalk across from where Costco is now located. It folded.”

    You make a statement you know nothing about. This was known as the ‘Darien Driving Range’. IT DID NOT FOLD. IT WAS SOLD (along with ‘Old McDonald’s Farm’), because the owners were offered a great deal of money. The Darien Driving Range owner was not thinking of selling it until he was approached.

  21. Suzanne

    All of the money from the state budget is from the same place – that Oak Hills would receive over and above the needs I mention above when it is so beautiful already is practically an insult to this taxpayer and avid fan of the sport.

  22. Suzanne

    Mr. Cafero and Mr. DesRochers put together that grant proposal under the radar without public input. Mr. Reynolds, call it for what it is: Mr. Cafero’s swan song to a long career in CT politics. I am sure it will look nice on a bumper sticker but that does not preclude the fact that there are other parks in Norwalk far needier than Oak Hills (but not as good for photo-ops) that could have used that money tagged for parks by the State.

  23. Paul Cantor

    Mr. Pattacini,

    What happened to the driving range after it was sold?

  24. Chevy Vega

    There was also a drive-in movie theater nearby. The three older business activities are now the office park that includes Price Line.com.

    How anyone can consider spending millions of dollars (whatever the source) to build a golf driving range so some people can “hit a bucket of balls” in my opinion is insane.

  25. Debora

    @TR,
    It is because I have done the research that I know what I know. You ought to try it, because its clear you don’t even understand the charter, much less the finances of the park, nor the conditions attached to the FIRST open space grant OHPA got from the state back in ’66.
    .
    The fact that you do not understand the difference between a park and a municipal authority continually undermines your argument. The fact that you define OHPA as profitable while it is carrying significant debt is definitely a departure from what everyone else defines as profitable. Attacking me does not change that.
    .
    You can be FOR the expenditures of millions in state taxpayer dollars, but at least be honest and admit Is about the golf, not about a history of successful management of the park.

  26. Debora

    Oh, and they can’t put all of the proceeds back into the park as you say. Because first TDRS will have to get their cut as a concessionnaire, and then, after park expenses are taken out, those prsky loans have to be paid back–you know, the ones from 1998? And these new ones. And I am still waiting to see if their is any plan to refund the escrow account and the capital improvement accounts like they legally promised to do under the lease.

  27. Mr. Cantor,

    Glad to see you change your tune. You use the word ‘SOLD’ and not ‘FOLD’. Buildings went in there. The range owner moved down the street and opened a very sucessful ‘GOLF’ shop.

  28. Paul Cantor

    Mr. Pattacini:

    With all that money he received why didn’t he open another driving range?

  29. Casey Smith

    @Mea
    “As a taxpayer, I find the analogy about the old car ridiculous, when you look at the schools right around the block that desperately need to be updated.”

    I just want to point out that more than 50% of the entire City Budget is given to the Norwalk Board of Education. The BOE is continually working on improvements to the schools, right now Naramake is literally under construction, and Rowayton is also have some work done. The projects and their place on the list is determined by the BOE, and frequently, the State will reimburse the District on a percentage for certain improvements. The schools are not suffering because Oak Hills is update its facilities.

  30. Chevy Vega

    Mr. Pattacini,

    Why is the very successful ‘GOLF’ shop you mentioned being demolished at this very moment ???

    It’s the Darien Golf Center LLC located at 233 Post Rd, Darien with the demolition notice and construction equipment in the front.

  31. Robert Pattiacini

    Mr. Cantor,

    He probably would have, but he had better hours and less stress in his new ‘GOLF’ business. After all, he ran that range for >30 years and made a good living. He gave jobs to many of us future golfers. What I’m trying to say to you is that his business did not “FOLD” as you said in your statement. When he “SOLD”,he went to another GOLF business.

  32. Chevy Vega

    Mr. Pattiacini,

    You are the one who is wrong not Paul Cantor. The business formerly known as the Darien Golf Range and owned by Peter Zangrillo FOLDED. It was the property which is now the location of River Park at 800 Connecticut Ave. in Norwalk that was “sold”.

    Also, the business known as the Darien Golf Center LLC
    has also recently FOLDED. It was also owned and operated by Peter Zangrillo and his son Dana, and again, it was the property at 233 Post Rd in Darien that was “sold”. It must be a while since you were last there. The building is currently being demolished and will be the new home of Patriot Bank.

    These FACTS should cast some doubt as to the financial viability of a golf driving range, learning center, etc. at Oak Hills Park unless the plan includes eventually selling the property when all else fails.

  33. Robert Pattacini

    Mr. Vega,

    I knew Peter well, he told me (in the 60’s) before Oak Hills was opened, he was offered the Head Pro job, which he obviously turned down. He also spoke (70’s) about how much his property was worth and the town would not work with him at that time with his taxes. I frequent the range with many good memories. I also frequent the golf shop, but that was a successful business until franchises, just like hardware stores to Home Depot, you want to say they folded, I say they Sold. I hope you knew Peter; he gave jobs to kids who couldn’t get one.

    I know what Mr. Cantor’s point is, how profitable can a range be? Do you remember (80’s) how a company wanted to build a range behind where ‘Walmart’ is now? They were opposed by the ‘West Norwalk Assoc’, too much traffic (wow, look at it now). That company saw a profit there.

    I do not want the driving range in the proposed site. I want the range where Tad King proposed at his expense. Behind the restaurant, Tad King had funding (in place), he was going to build the range and most of the master plan items, at his expense. But because Moccia was not re-elected and no one would stand up to the opposition; He turned down building in the new proposed site, maybe because it was not as profitable or OHPA and King could not agree on how monies would be distributed. I heard the latter.
    I know on prime property a range would be foolish. But on a golf course? Many Norwalk golfers frequent the Sterling Farms Range, which grosses >800k/year. Can Oak Hills’s range do that? I doubt it, in the proposed site, but TAD king (who has a impeccable reputation) for building driving ranges, must have seen a profit there behind restaurant.
    But the opposition has gone from; do not destroy the woods, lack of golf rounds, non-payment of loans, and misuse of chemicals to a scandal at Oak Hills. Most these statements were in the media and they are false, rounds are up, revenue is up, chemicals are being handled properly and we have made our loan payments (>180K) last (3) years. As far as a scandal, I know the present management (Exc. Director) personally; he too has an impeccable reputation. Maybe the opposition brings up these false statements because they fear it will be profitable.

  34. Suzanne

    What fears could there possibly be with profitability in a driving range at Oak Hills? According to postings on this site, all of the profits have to be sunk back into the maintenance and running of the park. That would an advantage to the golfers and to taxpayers, assuming profits are used to reduce loan debt to the City of Norwalk.
    *
    The 800k gross you are describing for Sterling Farms does not represent an accurate profitability figure. I spoke with Paul Grillo personally about this when Mr. Virgulak insisted over and over that profits would range in the $400 thousand range for Oak Hills. After the expenses of rent and maintenance are met at Sterling Farms, again this from Paul Grillo who pays the bills, their profits range in the tens of thousands, that is somewhere around between 40 to 70 thousand depending upon the play. So, wherever you got that 800 thousand figure (especially because it does NOT represent profitability), it simply is not accurate.
    *
    The people participating in this venture maybe good, nice, respectable, responsible people – on both sides. That there is a difference of opinion does not seem to be being honored by the process with OHPA. There should be no exceptions to how parks are developed, in particular with the Master Plan process, in the City of Norwalk. The Planning Commission just approved a Master Plan prepared, as noted above through actual quotations from the sources, by the vendor who will be profiting from the range. How is this not a conflict of interest?
    *
    Finally, of course rounds are up! We have had an exceptionally cool summer with polite rain ideal for play. What is problematic about counting on that, if monies are not set aside for contingencies, is the vicissitudes of weather. Oak Hills is always golden lately when the weather is good then bring in a long winter and the resources become an ask of the City of Norwalk to cover expenses. Not acceptable if abiding by the charter requirements.
    *
    Moving forward: let’s have a management that is a part of the City Government that abides by the charter that established the golf course in the first place. Why monetize what isn’t broken?
    *
    Are golfers saying that the Course is NOT well maintained and not good for play? That they need more in order to play Oak Hills? Why would rounds be up then as the course is now? Why the need for a driving range if the OHPA is servicing their debt(s) and meeting their expenses through rounds?
    *
    I think in part this is what is disturbing about how the golfers represent themselves. You will note the list of needs for Norwalk above, very partial, juxtaposed with the idea that golfers, playing a game, on a beautiful course, on a large amount of acreage for this town are saying they need, like very spoiled people, more.
    *
    It is a lack of consciousness about what is really “needed” in this town for golfers to want more, especially when the management is so good, the rounds are up and, according to the last entry, expenses are being met.
    *
    Maybe it’s time for a golf outing field trip to some of the poorer areas of Norwalk that have real needs so they can put this driving range “need” into perspective.

  35. Robert Pattacini

    Suzanne,

    I know the 800K is based on third party conversations, but I know if you go down there as many times as I do, 800K is believable.

    Did Paul Grillo show you his numbers? Is there a place were we can see what the range gross actually is?

    Also, I do not think your last paragraph was fair, unless your including all the opposition too.

  36. Suzanne

    Wow. 800K based on third party conversation and now a conversation with the man who pays the bills is not good enough. I have to admit, given the OHPA behavior of “believe what we say, not what we do”, this is just a little annoying. Are you saying I did not have that conversation or that Mr. Grillo would misrepresent the numbers to me? Or that third party conversation is more accurate?

    I am not sure to what you are referring that is unfair: seeing poorer areas of Norwalk to put the “need” for a driving range into perspective or comparing that “need” to the poorer areas of Norwalk, including funding, that need that grant more than a gorgeous park already funded, already enjoyed by a few and, apparently, doing well financially.

    I have no qualms personally with any golfer, at least I don’t think I do. I just have to look at the bigger picture and see where this is going. It is simply untenable to believe a driving range is absolutely necessary in the face of financial data from a source who knows about running probably the most successful driving range in the area as well as assessing the needs of our town, based on NEED not WANT.

  37. Paul Cantor

    Mr. Pattacini:

    I do not think a large commercial driving range belongs in a Public Park situated in a residential neighborhood whether or not it would generate revenues. But you are right that I also do not think a driving range in Oak Hills would be a moneymaker. If a convincing case could be made that it would be a moneymaker Total Driving Range Solutions would have come up with financing for it from the private sector.

    In January 2013 the OHPA issued a request for proposals (RFP) to construct a driving range. The RFP required proposers to submit information concerning their capacity to raise the funds needed for the project. Only two firms submitted proposals and TDRS, a recently established firm owned by Mr. Downing, was selected.

    Subsequently, Mr. Desrochers said Mr. Downing “has someone who is willing to provide him with financing.” However, when that turned out not to be the case the RFP morphed into what is now euphemistically being billed a “Master Plan.” It is this Desrochers/Downing proposal that calls for $3 million in taxpayer subsidized loans to fund construction of the driving range and an additional $1 million in taxpayer subsidized loans to upgrade the course. Below is the chronology of events leading to the Master Plan.

    1. August 16, 2012. At a meeting of the Oak Hills Park Authority (OHPA) its chairman, Robert Virgulak, requests permission from the Authority to take steps to determine the feasibility of building a driving range in Oak Hills Park. He notes that the OHPA does not want to add to the more than $2 million it already owes the city and is struggling to pay back so it will require the driving range be financed by the firm selected to construct and operate it.

    2. October 11, 2012. At a meeting of Norwalk’s Finance Committee its director, Thomas Hamilton, points out there has been a major reduction in the number of rounds played at Oak Hills and across the country and Robert Baron, Director of Management and the Budget explains that not enough rounds of golf had been played at Oak Hills and that as a result there was not enough money to maintain the golf course.

    3. December 5, 2012, Mr. Virgulak, according to a story in The Hour, claims “a driving range is needed so the golf course will survive. Without that additional revenue, there’s no way. We need another source of revenue and the only one that makes sense is a driving range.”

    4. December 19, 2012. Nancy on Norwalk reports that Thomas Vorio, the Oak Hills golf course’s superintendent, says that numbers show a driving range is not the solution to the OHPA’s financial woes. Mr. Vorio also claims that the OHPA driving range committee is aware of those numbers.

    5. February 2013. The OHPA issues a request for proposal for the development, construction & operation of a new outdoor Golf Driving Range Facility at Oak Hills Park Golf Course. The request mandates bidders indicate: 1. how they plan to finance the project, 2. how much they will pay the OHPA in the form of rent for the land on which they plan to situate the driving range and 3. the percentage the driving range’s gross revenues they will share with the OHPA. Its request also stipulates “the proposer must have at least five years of operational experience.”

    6. June 12, 2013. Nancy On Norwalk and The Hour report that after twice extending the deadline to reply to its RFP to construct and operate the driving range, the OHPA only received responses from two firms: Total Driving Range Solutions of Norwalk (TDRS) and King Golf International, Inc. of Westport.

    7. August 15, 2013. The OHPA selects TDRS’ proposal and Mr. DesRochers, the chairman of the OHPA’s Driving Range Committee, claims the Authority will receive a “reasonable amount of gross revenue” from TDRS. But Mr. DesRochers does not specify what that amount will be. Nor does he indicate how much rent TDRS will pay for the land on which the driving range will be situated.

    8. May 2, 2014. Nancy On Norwalk reports that the Oak Hills Park Authority has come up with a Master Plan that calls for the City, not TDRS, to finance construction of the driving range. The Master Plan was developed by Clyde Mount, the current chairman of the Authority, Ernie DesRochers, and TDRS.

    9. May 15, 2014. Mr. DesRochers is asked whether the reason the Authority is now calling for taxpayers to bear the risk that the driving range will not cover the cost of its construction is because the private sector was unwilling to take on that risk. But instead of answering that question he replies with the non sequitur that the Authority came to the conclusion that it should own the driving range. That, as the former OHPA chairman Robert Virgulak pointed out, is a complete flip-flop. “Whoever the developer was that was going … to build the range was going to pay … a ground lease and … part of the gross proceeds to the authority,” he said according to a May 7 story in The Hour.

    Who stands to benefit most from the Downing/DesRochers proposal? Will it be Norwalk’s taxpayers?

    What is the chance Mr. Downing’s driving range will end up helping cover the difference between the cost of operating and maintaining the 18-hole golf course so the OHPA won’t continue to come back to taxpayers for additional subsidized loans in the future? Suzanne helped answer that question in her reply to you above. The probability that the driving range will be a moneymaker is low for all of the following reasons:

    1. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. As The Hour put it years ago, unlike the Sterling Frarms driving range: “Oak Hills, tucked away as it is off Fillow Street, is not the most accessible location. Driving ranges on major highways succeed because there is considerable traffic passing by.”

    2. LACK OF PRIVATE SECTOR INTEREST. If driving ranges were as profitable as the OHPA hopes its proposed range would be entrepreneurs would be buying up land and establishing them right and left. The fact that isn’t happening is an indication that the Authority’s hope is a chimera. Just consider the fact that of three 18-hole golf courses within a few miles of Oak Hills Park two, Shorehaven in Norwalk and Longshore in Westport, have short practice (not driving) ranges without nets while one, Silvermine, has neither a driving range nor a practice range. If driving ranges were particularly profitable all three would have constructed them long ago.

    3. COMPETITION. Competition with the more conveniently located Sterling Farms driving range would limit the ability of the OHPA’s proposed driving range’s ability to generate profits.

    4. CONSTRAINTS. Because the driving range would be located in a residential neighborhood concerned with traffic, noise, and lights constraints would be put on it that would limit its ability to generate a profit. Furthermore, the limited amount of parking spaces in Oak Hills Park will limit its ability to generate profits.

    5. EFFECT ON GOLF COURSE USER FEES. The proposed range may make the golf course less attractive to golfers leading to fewer rounds rather than more rounds being played and hence lower revenues from green fees. As you yourself pointed out you do not like the proposed location of the driving range. And as John Sharkey wrote, “I am speaking as a golfer of Oak Hills in reference to the proposed site…Do we want a driving range or practice range?…The congestion of the golfers walking to the range will interfere with tee time golfers and traffic will ruin the practice green. http://www.thehour.com/opinion/letters/not-a-great-site-for-the-driving-range-at-oak/article_115ff2b9-c827-519a-b388-1f355935c0c8.html

  38. TomReynolds

    Paul – one man’s “opinion” should never be a cause for change. Just look at how ineffective the White House has been for the last 7 years.

  39. Suzanne

    Actually, Mr. Reynolds, if you read Mr. Cantor’s entry at all, you would see he is citing the facts of the evolution of a driving range as a money maker for Oak Hills. Your political comment seems a bit desperate and certainly cries “Help!” in the face of irrefutable fact. There is no retort for those that will hold water based on Mr. Cantor’s entry. As to opinions? Well, yours I suppose is no better than any other’s and there is that pesky thing called “factual information” included in countless responses to your comments in this thread.

  40. Charles Brennan

    Mr Cantor only agrees with The Hour when they support his opinion Sterling Farms range is not any easier to get to then one would be at Oak Hills as most people who would use the range know. Again he uses Shorehaven (has a full range) and Silvermine (has a full practice area) and Longshore in his reasons the first 2 are pivate courses which the public can’t use and Longshore has a range that you can’t hit woods on so really not the same. Any of the golfers that live north of Sterling Farms would use Oak hills other than drive to Stamford.

  41. Suzanne

    Mr. Brennan, So for that reason, golfer convenience, Norwalk citizens should relinquish rightful process in putting together a Master Plan like any other park is required to do in the City, add additional debt to the coffers on behalf of this apparently successfully run Course without a driving range, and take on additional taxpayer expense for this luxury item in lieu of assisting other, more needy facilities in Norwalk as well as infrastructure. Wow.

  42. Debora

    “Many Norwalk golfers frequent the Sterling Farms Range, which grosses >800k/year.”
    …Gross figures are meaningless, net profitability at Sterling Farms is in the mid-tens of thousands…
    “Can Oak Hills’s range do that? I doubt it, in the proposed site, but TAD king (who has a impeccable reputation) for building driving ranges, must have seen a profit there behind restaurant.”
    …Of course he did, he wasn’t going to have to BUY the land to operate the driving range, like most private concerns would, nor pay fair market for the rental of the land. He was instead looking at paying a split of the revenue.

  43. Chevy Vega

    I’m still waiting to hear from Ernie Desrochers, the ad hoc Driving Range Committee Chairman, with regard that “It’s not going to be a BMW. In FACT, it’s not even going to be a Cadillac. It’s a Chevy Malibu and what we are trying to do is restore it back.

    What are the FACTS ? Will she have a 396 ci with a 4-on the floor and fuely heads ? Ragtop or hardtop ?

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