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Norwalk’s ‘loud voices’ say Oak Hills should reduce golf course to 9 or 12 holes

Paul Cantor, left, discusess the economics of golf courses and parks with George Wolfe, right, and others Saturday in Norwalk.
Paul Cantor, left, discusses the economics of golf courses and parks with George Wolfe, right, and others Saturday at the far end of the proposed Norwalk driving range.

By Nancy Guenther Chapman

NORWALK, Conn. – A debate raged in the low point of a West Norwalk tree stand Saturday morning, a spot where members of the Oak Hills Park Authority hope that golf balls will be landing by the end of the summer.

“We talk about the greatest good for the greatest number – there are more people that would benefit from this kind of experience than from a driving range,” said Bill Wrenn of the walk in the woods behind the restaurant at Oak Hills.

“People who are not interested in walks won’t find that argument compelling for anything,” replied George Wolfe, a “tag-along” on the walk.

The proposal to build a driving range at Oak Hills had inspired a debate that has many passionate voices on both sides.

“A golf course isn’t a golf course if it doesn’t have a range,” said Tyler Lower, a Class A PGA professional, at last week’s meeting of the Oak Hills Park Authority. “That’s one thing I stress as an instructor: It’s not easy, it’s a tough game, go ahead and take a few swings and warm up there.”

Lower, a Norwalk resident, expressed confidence that the course can move ahead with an energetic new golf pro and “highly trained staff coming in with lots of gusto.”

Connor O’Brien, a Brien McMahon High School sophomore, said he had played at Oak Hills since he was 4 or 5, and hoped to continue. “I’ve played a lot of golf at a lot of different golf courses,” he said. “What really makes a facility great is both a quality golf course and a high quality driving range facility at which players can hone their skills.”

Every public course in the area has a driving range except Oak Hills, Connor said, adding, “I get concerned when the loud voices of a few clog the airwaves with misinformation and hostile rhetoric that inhibits the success of Oak Hills and puts the taxpayers they are so eager to protect at greater risk for loss.”

Similar comments were made in the woods Saturday by some of those “loud voices.”

“They’re a small, vocal minority in the community, and the majority of taxpayers don’t pay attention,” said Paul Cantor, a vocal opponent of the range, who points out that only 10 percent of Norwalk residents play golf. Parks should benefit everyone, he said. “If you can cover the operating costs then there’s some benefit to it. But if you can’t even cover the operating costs then we should say no, we’ll turn it into a park.”

Challenged by Wolfe to come up with an economic argument against the range, Cantor talked about the law of supply and demand.

Public golf courses across the country are struggling  because the demand has shifted, Cantor and others said, using an article written by golf great Jack Nicklaus to buttress their argument.

Nicklaus recommends that public golf courses drop to 12 holes, because people’s habits have changed. Cantor and others said it is no fluke that Oak Hills is struggling. People are too busy these days to play 18 holes of golf, they said.

If Oak Hills dropped to a 9- or 12-hole course, there would be room to build a driving range on land that has already been flattened, they said, as opposed to the woods behind the restaurant, which will require expensive blasting for leveling.

Oak Hills Authority members have the evidence right in front of them and aren’t seeing it, they said.

At last week’s meeting, Executive Director Shelly Guyer gave a report on 2012 income. He said, “Nine-hole play, strange as it may seem, was up almost 200 percent. I’m not sure what’s behind that, but it’s a nice thing to do.”

Resident adult play was “down substantially,” he said; senior resident play up 2 percent and non-resident play was up 3 percent. Junior play was “down significantly,” he said. Members attributed that to the absence of former Executive Director Vinny Grillo.

Cantor thought it odd that Republicans should be in favor of keeping the park a golf course, as he says it isn’t self-sustaining. “It’s welfare for the wealthy,” he said.

Walkers on Saturday included members of the Norwalk Land Trust. President-elect Kathy Sievert said they were there just for fact finding. All who were opposed thought it an uphill battle. “The mayor wants this,” Cantor said, “and the way the politics are, the Republicans will give it to him.”

Correction made, 1:33 a.m.

It will be far from cheap to change the grade of this landscape, driving range opponents say. Huge nets will be bad for wildlife, Bill Wrenn said.

Comments

17 responses to “Norwalk’s ‘loud voices’ say Oak Hills should reduce golf course to 9 or 12 holes”

  1. Paul Cantor

    Hi Nancy. I don’t think it is likely that the driving range will be built. I think it is highly unlikely. And I don’t think everyone who plays golf is wealthy. The reason Republicans, if they are consistent, should be opposed to the government operating golf courses is because Republicans in general don’t favor government provision of goods and services that are provided by the private sector. Municipal golf courses compete with private sector golf courses. If the goal is to provide the poor with money so they can pursue their favorite sport the government can provide them with a sport voucher that might be used at a privately run driving range or ski resort or fitness center. Paul Cantor

  2. I took out the line about you thinking it likely it will be built. I appreciate you sharing your opinions.

  3. Bryan Meek

    If facts matter, we should look at the entire $10 million we spent on Recs and Parks operating and capital budgets last year. In this respect, OHPA asking for a short term bridge loan can hardly be compared to the millions OHPA has saved the city over the years in maintenance costs. Build the range and go take a hike….in one of our other MORE COSTLY parks.

  4. Bill Wrenn

    I don’t think this is a Democratic or Republican issue. We hope that Mayor Moccia and Council Members will realize that the proposed driving range would cause an unacceptable amount of dammage to the park and the environment. And there are better alternatives for solving Oak Hills’ financial problems.

  5. Tootles

    Please verify that 10 million number. City Hall budget records show it around 5 million for both capital and operating combined. Kind of takes the thunder out of your arguement.

  6. Tootles

    I stand corrected. Per the city website, the Rec/Parks budget for FY 2011-2012 was 3.4 million for operating and 1 million for capital. Well under 4 million. And this doesnt take into account the money put back into the general fund through the beach/vets admission fees, children programs (swimming/camps), leagues (baseball/softball/lacrosse/soccer/football/volleyball), special events, etc. If you really want to compare “bang for the buck”, the Rec and Parks department is the wrong one to use to attempt to make Oak Hills look good..

  7. Tootles

    Correction*** Well under 5 million.

  8. Bryan Meek

    Actuals operations for fiscal year 2012 was $3.7 million. Page 67.

    Actual capital for fiscal year 2012 was 7.3 million. With 10.1 million still authorized but not spent. Page 43.

    Actual revenues for fiscal year 2012 was just under 1.0 million.

    The city keeps its financial reports here. You want to look at the most recent published 12/28/2012 which covers FY 2012.

    http://www.norwalkct.org/Archive.aspx?AMID=41

    Just my opinion, but this is money well spent. It is what differentiates and makes our city attractive. All of our parks, including Oak Hills must flourish if we are to thrive as a city. Fillow Street is the longest and one of the more busy roads in Norwalk. Buying a house there (and after the golf course was already there) doesn’t give you the right to hold the rest of the city hostage from maintaining these to their fullest potential.

    Four relevant facts have us in the current situation.
    1. Restaurant too big, too much, and out of place.
    2. Two of the rainiest seasons for weekends I think any of us can remember. Ordinarily I play about 20 times a year. I was lucky if I played a total of 20 in those two years.
    3. Removal of the in person lottery for weekend tee times. This forced you to commit to a time on the weekends if any were available before 11 a.m. We need to figure out a way to reinstate this electronically.
    4. A few rabble-rousers who are constantly attacking the course year in and year out. I wish they had as much energy employed in fighting a ridiculous zoning issue down the street.

  9. Bryan Meek

    Oh Tootles.

    That is 10 million in negative cash out flows on Parks NOT including long term retirement and health care obligations for our staff members. The city isn’t on the hook for any of this type of expense for Oak Hills. The city doesn’t list these obligations by function, but at almost a half a billion dollars, if we conservatively estimate Recs and Parks share at 1%, there is another $5 million we are on the hook for. Again I think there is high value in all of these efforts however intangible the products may be.

  10. Tootles

    From the 11/12 approved rec and parks capital budget, page 3,
    Recreation & Parks $1,072,000 Vehicles ($92,000), Playgrounds ($235,000), Calf Pasture Beach ($75,000),
    Cranbury Park ($230,000), Fodor Farm ($80,000), Basketball & Tennis Courts
    ($50,000), Veteran’s Memorial Park ($110,000), Backstop & Fencing ($50,000),
    Tree Planting ($25,000), Open Space ($25,000), 50 Washington Street Plaza
    ($100,000)

  11. M. Murray

    Does anyone know the number of people who walk in that area of the park? Or how many would use the driving range?

  12. Bryan Meek

    Tootles. Additional capital budget amounts are not the same as money spent. We spent 7.3 million last year on capital improvements. I gave you the exact page on the annual report, you can see for yourself. You are referring to amounts that were authorized additions to the capital projects accounts. Related, but not the same. These are for ongoing investments in our land and facilities.

  13. Suzanne

    Bryan Meek: Clearly you have not taken a walk through the woodland area designated for a driving range. The land is a successive top to bottom hike, very steep, with huge ledge piles in between. It is densely wooded and, if the driving range were to be built in this area, it could not possibly be sloped appropriately without adversely affecting adjacent wetlands. Basically, if you were to take an elevation level from the top nearest the parking areas for best access to the tee boxes, a driving range would have to be recreated by removing the ledge and adding in tons and tons and tons of cubic yards of soil.

    Before coming to conclusions, educate yourself on something more than the numbers from a previous year’s budget or even a projected budget. I have built many, many projects over the years with a few sports fields under my belt: this is just the wrong location choice. If they can find any vendor even remotely interested based on a lease option, I will be very surprised. It will take many, many years for a driving range to generate the funds (which the projected amount has yet to be released/desired by this OHPA)to get the golf course out of the financial quagmire it is in.

    The reason people are uncomfortable with giving more money to the OHPA has to do with the reluctance of said Authority to show where the money they have already borrowed and/or made has gone. The cart paths are excellent in some areas and asphalt gravel in others. Many of the sand traps are weedy and the tees so chipped, you could not hit a ball from there. The restaurant is a beautiful facility but somehow OHPA managed to choose management that caused complete failure and greater debt.

    In addition, Vinny Grillo in his letters to the Hour (March and May 2012) mentions the rainy weather as a drawback but goes onto say that this Authority refused to open the course during the warmer, drier winter post one of those rainy seasons choosing instead to remain closed – adjacent municipal courses profited from this poor OHPA decision.

    I don’t live next to Oak Hills but I do appreciate it – it is beautifully designed and has an outstanding history. I have played the front and back nine on a number of occasions. I also happen to love golf – a lot – as a spectator and “wannabe” player. I don’t trust this OHPA at all and especially do not after having attended a meeting and saw how they conducted themselves.

    This Park should be treated as the business and natural resource it is: show me where that knowledge base exists on the OHPA. If it does, it has not been demonstrated. Their decisions are poor and not in the interest of Norwalk taxpayers, golfer or not a golfer. No more money to them and no driving range.

  14. Bryan Meek

    Suzanne, you might be ready to throw in the towel but others aren’t. I’ll reserve judgment for the proposals that come out and no I’m not happy about the cart paths either, but the ultimate alternative of selling the land and having it developed should be your worst nightmare. I would think you might have some proactive solutions instead of joining on the negative chorus that will eventually see condos here if we don’t do something. Parks & Rec would need millions upon millions upon millions over the years to maintain this and I just don’t see taxpayers putting up for that. This is why the numbers are important.

  15. Suzanne

    Bryan Meeks, I have never said I was “ready to throw in the towel.” In fact, I have been spending a considerable amount of time on research, writing and meetings to ascertain what is best as the “next step.” Surely, you did not read my previous entry which expresses the absolute appreciation I have for this Park. It is beautiful and should not be sacrificed to wrong-headed development. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out where you get the idea that the Park can be developed into condos should it fail (though I have suspected of Moccia desiring as much due to his ever-loving relationship with “Tax Base.” I know, paranoid, but hard to avoid based on his and his appointees’ previous actions.) The provisions in the City Charter for this land’s use is pretty specific: selling it for development is not one of those provisions. Proactive solutions would be to cut the course down to nine holes (nationwide a much more profitable golfing model than an 18-hole course), use one of the course holes most suited for a driving or practice range, create grassland areas for regeneration of species in decline due to the fragmentation of natural ecologies in this Norwalk urban environment, open space for picnic and recreation areas, raised bed community based gardens (you know, for all Norwalkers, not just golfers) and now I have to write, “ETC.” All of these would be a good start toward diversifying the Park while allowing monetization through community festivals for the creative arts, music, sports, education and, remaining, a golf course that people have time to play (and pay for) and this most coveted driving range. Not a complete picture but one that should illustrate that no one is “giving up’ but, rather, seeking solutions that would welcome every Norwalker while paying for itself.

  16. Suzanne

    Bryan Meeks, I just thought of something else. Wouldn’t it be cool to set up a large screen, surround the viewing area with citronella lamps (for the inevitable summertime mosquitos) and have an old movie series, outside, under the stars? This has proved a successful event in Darien at Tilley Pond.

  17. Here’s a suggestion:

    Turn the front nine into a driving range and a Golf Instruction Center. Invest some money and take a small part of the market share that Chelsea Piers in Stamford is about to steal from every golf course in Fairfield County.

    Differentiate yourselves. Public golf courses are a dime-a-dozen and quite frankly, the front nine of Oak Hills is probably the oddest layout of any nine I have played in my entire life.
    I cite hole numbers 1,2 and 7 especially. The course was designed as if there was not enough room for eighteen holes. I can’t even use a driver until the 8th tee. That is ridiculous.

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