NORWALK, Conn. – Words were exchanged between Norwalk citizens this week, and for a change, they weren’t flying in only one direction.
Given the chance to finally reveal the fruits of his efforts Thursday, Oak Hills Park Authority Ad-Hoc Driving Range Committee Chairman Ernie Desrochers first looked his biggest critics in the eye and launched into what one of them called “a tirade.”
“There’s a lot of things that I’d like to say to the people in the audience this evening,” Desrochers began. “For months, since this driving range came up, we have sat here and have had different people claiming support of us absolutely blasting us at every particular spot we go with this thing. … I have never seen the vitriol that has gone on.”
The preamble to the announcement that the committee had decided to pursue a driving range option that did not involve tearing down the woods at Oak Hills was regarded as inappropriate by the small group of people who have attended virtually every meeting since the topic came up.
“The way that Desrochers handled it, it’s really nasty,” Yvonne “Myska” Lopaur said. “I mean it’s attacking us for making comments and being concerned and not including us in the planning of Oak Hill Park.”
Desrochers said he has been in Norwalk for 22 years and served seven years on the Zoning Commission, with three years as chairman. The only time he had seen similar behavior was when the Costco application was being considered, he said.
“When that was heard by the Zoning Commission, the harassment that we took and my family took was absolutely incredible,” he said. “I like to say that, this time, thank you for leaving my family out of it. My children then are now adults. You’re lucky you didn’t do it because you wouldn’t want to take them on.”
The criticisms and paranoia were rampant in other places, Desrochers said.
“Everywhere that we have turned, people have looked at financial scandal and departmental scandal everywhere,” he said. “They speculate in blogs, they speculate in letters to the editor. Not once has anybody actually tried to sit down and review the financial statements for the last 10 years. I have. I’m going to make some points.”
For one thing, Oak Hill’s debt is only 1 percent of the entire indebtedness that the city of Norwalk owes, he said.
“Statistically speaking, it’s a gnat,” he said.
Oak Hills is no more taxpayer supported than the Norwalk Parking Authority, Desrochers said. The city-issued bonds are paid for by users; in one case, parkers, in the other case, golfers, who pay for greens fees, carts and season passes.
“There’s not anywhere on the city of Norwalk budget where there is a line item for Oak Hills for tax dollars,” he said.
Desrochers then went on to blame the building of a massive restaurant for the authority’s financial problems, as previously reported. The authority members who voted for that acquiesced to politicians, he said.
Some of the people in the audience needed to realize that the current authority is making a necessary financial decision to pay bills, he said. It was “completely irresponsible” for people to insinuate other reasons, he said, and “dumbfounding” that they wouldn’t look at the financial history involved, the mathematics of the situation – the debt owed for the building of the restaurant was much more than the rent that could be expected from restaurateurs, meaning the park was in the red from the git-go.
The park is used by 35,000 people a year, he said.
“The diversity (of Norwalk) is not only its population but its recreational uses,” he said. “This is a fine golf course and I can tell you one thing – I came on this board 10 months ago and it was a laughing stock. I sit here today and these people have done a wonderful job. So stop attacking them and try supporting them a little.”
At that point, the little cadre of opponents began to speak back. “We’re not attacking you,” one said. “It’s a tirade,” another said.
When the authority voted unanimously to accept the recommendation to pursue the driving range proposal for the alternative location, the group applauded.
The target of much of Desrochers’ anger stuck by his guns after the meeting.
“I would challenge him to find any vitriol in anything I’ve written. Anything but logic,” said Paul Cantor, an outspoken critic. “I think it would be quite easy to find quite a lot of vitriol in the comments on NancyOnNorwalk, in The Hour and in letters written by members of Oak Hills Park. I don’t hate golfers. My grandfather was a golfer, my father was a golfer. …. To make personal attacks on me or anybody else is not appropriate for public officials or anybody else. They should address the issue.”
The issue, Cantor said, is taxpayers should not be subsidizing golf, and there is a reality to the situation. No one objected when the course was run by Vinny Grillo, he said, when it was in the black.
“I think it was a mistake to turn over the park to an authority,” he said. “The people who are on the authority do not look out for the taxpayers of Norwalk. They see themselves as advocating for golfers. That’s a mistake.”
Cantor said the demand for golf is declining. Scott Kimmich said that, too – it isn’t just soccer moms these days.
“He’s soccer pop, now,” Kimmich said, of young fathers. “I don’t think he’s going to have time, like they said was going to happen, to hit a bucket of balls and then play 18 holes. He doesn’t even have time to do the 18 holes now. …They could divide this course into two 9-holes. These guys are not thinking outside of the box.”
Kate Tepper, a Democratic candidate for Common Council, said Desrochers’ comments were “lousy,” but she was pleased – the persistent efforts of the group had been rewarded as the trees had been saved, she said.
“We were not rude at any point,” she said. “Only he was rude. We’re happy they saw the better of the two solutions.”