Oak Hills committee comes out of the woods, picks alternative site

NORWALK, Conn. – A “better business deal” was selected by the Oak Hills Park Authority Thursday evening – serious negotiations will begin with Jim Downing to put a driving range near the golf course’s cart barn.

The bottom line for neighbors of the park and environmentalists: The woods behind the restaurant at the park will not be cut down if negotiations work out. There will be no blasting, no driving range noises behind the now-quiet neighborhood and the migratory birds will still have their place to stop and rest.

A plus: a new master plan for the park may be part of the deal.

The authority – which sought and received a $150,000 loan from the city to get through the winter – found itself at the center of increased controversy last year when it began investigating options for a driving range. Members said a range would bring in much-needed revenue. They said they thought those woods would be a good location, but included in their request for proposals (RFP) a willingness to consider other locations.

Downing was one of two bidders who responded to the RFP, proposing to put a range near the teaching green. Tad King of King Golf International proposed a driving range in the woods.

Ad Hoc Driving Range Committee Chairman Ernie Desrochers and committee member Clyde Mount said Downing’s offer is a better deal.

“It’s a long way from being done, but I think it’s to the point where we have a business model that we can live with for the park,” Desrochers said. “We think for the park it best serves its finances. It’s going to provide the highest net revenue to the park.”

The authority voted unanimously to begin formal negotiations with Downing’s Total Driving Range Solutions to begin the process to put in a driving range.

Details were few, as they have been throughout the process.

“It’s a typical RFP process when you don’t tell everybody what’s going on,” Mount said. “… You have to understand that we’re not being quiet because we want to be quiet. We’re being quiet because that’s how an RFP process works. That’s the way it is.”

But the two men let out some details: The city will have an option to buy Downing’s driving range in five years. King’s range would have been available for purchase in 15 years.

“It’s a success and the city is good enough to raise the money, there’s an option there,” Desrochers said.

Downing has agreed to pay “a reasonable percentage of the gross, versus a fixed amount,” Desrochers said.

Downing’s architect, who has much experience designing golf course, will provide the city with master planning services, Desrochers said.

“One of the things that we’re going to do is take a look at our master plan, update it and develop alternative uses for the park,” he said.

Mount said he would have fought to put the range in the woods if he thought that was a better deal, but it wasn’t.

“His proposal takes us much closer to what we see as an acceptable deal that will be most beneficial to the course while not hurting the environment,” he said. “… It’s going to have a little impact on play. We’re a little worried about that. But we have to move on it. We have to finally say OK, we’re going to try to go this way or that way.”

Very few trees would be knocked down if negotiations with Downing succeed, he said. Some barns and other things will be moved.

Desrochers began his remarks with an angry rebuttal to many things that have been said to opponents of the proposal to use the woods. His comments included a recap of the park’s finances.

“When the Oak Hills Park Authority was formed, there was $3.1 million in debt that the city bonded for the city to use on the park; $900,000 was for drainage improvements; $1 million was supposed to go for the construction of the restaurant; $1.2 million was supposed to go for the construction of a driving range,” he said.

The authority’s financial problems go back to those decisions, made by politicians and agreed to by members of the authority then, he said.

Instead of spending $1 million for a restaurant, authority members dropped their driving range plan and spent $2.2 million on the restaurant, he said.

“The debt service on $2.2 million that wasn’t adjusted yet is $190,000 a year,” he said. “The most you were going to get from the restaurant was about 90 grand a year. We’re already in the hole about 100 grand before we get started.”

The current driving range plan is likely to resolve those problems, he said.

“If you look at the market value of the rent and you look at the net income that a driving range would generate, the net operating income, depending on whose projection you believe, are anywhere between $400 and $500,000 a year,” he said. “Four and a half percent, 20-year schedule, that is the bond rate that we’re paying on the restaurant, and the other items is $235,000 in debt. So basically, we have 1¾ to two times debt service coverage.”

Original story: 

NORWALK, Conn. – It looks like the trees at Oak Hills Park are not going to be chopped down to install a driving range.

Oak Hills Park Authority ad hoc Driving Range Committee Chairman Ernie Desrochers announced Thursday evening that he and Clyde Mount are recommending the location proposed by Jim Downing of Total Driving Range Solutions, which is near the first tee at the park. The proposal from Tad King Golf International to build in the woods at Oak Hills is being not being pursued at present.

Desrochers said the Downing proposal is a better deal for the city. There is a potential that the city could own the range in five years, he said, as opposed to 15 years with the King proposal.

The committee voted unanimously to begin serious negotiations with Downing.


27 responses to “Oak Hills committee comes out of the woods, picks alternative site”

  1. oldtimer

    Somebody on the commission has been listening.
    While there is no proof a practice/driving range will bring the park back into the black, it may well be worth exploring if it can be done without doing a lot of damage.

  2. EveT

    Very encouraging news! Perhaps they realized the astronomical cost of building on the steep, wooded property that borders a wetland!

  3. Debora

    I, for one, am glad that OHPA chose to recognize that wholesale destruction of the woods was not the economically viable choice and that they acknowledged in their statement the desires of the public to preserve the woods and to have other activities in the park.
    Thank you Friends of Oak Hills for all of your efforts to save the woodlands.

  4. kmokeefe

    The Oak Hills Park Authority has made the right choice in deciding that the Oak Hills Park Woodlands would not be a suitable location for a driving range. They are to be commended for making this very practical and logical decision. As a member of Friends of Oak Hills Park I would like to reiterate that our goal was never to prevent the building of a driving range, it was to prevent the destruction of pristine woodlands in order to do so. The woodland site proposed at a public meeting earlier in the year was completely unsuitable for the purpose of a driving range. Although some members of the OHPA did not agree with our views I believe that the record will show that our concerns were always presented to the OHPA with civility and respect for their work. Thank you for listening to our concerns.

  5. Avatar

    While it seems things are moving along in a positive direction, not so sure about commissioners’ understanding of RFP process in the public sector.

  6. M Allen

    See, everyone can win. Nobody needs to be vilified along the way. Let the tree huggers and the evil range builders go have lunch together at the restaurant nobody uses and sing songs of great love.

  7. Piberman

    It’s discouraging that Oak Hills Authority still has not issued either detailed financial or environmental impact statements on the driving range proposal and that neither Mayor Moccia nor Common Council members have publicly asked for them. Is the Oak Hills Authority truly an independent agency ? Not in Norwalk !

  8. Mike Mushak

    Smart move so far by OHPA. I called for a new master plan several months ago in a letter to the editor, including exploring the viability of an option following the lead from many other municipalities from around the country and reducing the number of holes from 18 to 12 or 14, (see this link http://www.worldgolf.com/column/12-hole-golf-courses-11475.htm.)
    Many studies show that lots of folks just don’t have the time or the money for a full 4-5 hour 18-hole round these days, especially when our increasingly extreme weather patterns are such a factor here in the Northeast (too hot, too cold, or too wet most of the year, making it uncomfortable to spend that much time outdoors especially for older folks, and also making the courses harder and more expensive to maintain.)
    Part of the reason the popularity of golf has decreased so much over the last decade is because many folks are just too busy to devote half a day to any sport or pastime. An 18-hole round can still be played on a 12 or 14 hole layout, but of course a few holes would be repeated. A popular 6-hole round played in an hour and a half is what many courses are selling now anyway.
    Reducing course size is a growing trend, especially by municipalities who simply cannot continue using precious taxpayer subsidies to pay for escalating chemical, fuel, water,and labor costs associated with the large 18-hole layouts, which were mostly built in a different era decades ago when costs were much less and municipalities were flush with tax money from rapid growth.
    Hopefully OHPA will also have the vision to take a much-needed serious look at the long-term environmental sustainability of the golf course, with an emphasis on controlling future costs by limiting the need for expensive water and chemical use, for which the runoff has many still-unknown impacts on ground water and the health of Long Island Sound. Testing of local wells would be a good way to determine any impacts, as well as a hydrologist’s report that would detail the groundwater flows towards the Sound from the many ponds and wetlands within the golf course layout which take direct drainage off the fairways and greens. I recall a staggering cost for both millions of gallons of irrigation water and tons of chemicals paid by OHPA for just last year alone, well over $200k. I’ll try to confirm that soon, but we all know it is literally millions of gallons of costly water which is not free, and tons of chemicals applied annually including high-nitrogen fertilizer, herbicides for weed control, fungicides for fungus, and pesticides for grubs and other pests that damage grass.
    By exploring the possibility of reducing the size of the course, you naturally reduce the amount of water and chemicals needed, reducing impacts on groundwater and the Sound, and the labor and fuel to constantly mow and blow those extra acres of grass. The resulting open space after a course size reduction can be used for both active and passive recreation, including expanding trails and bird-watching platforms with educational signage through ecologically restored wetlands and the endangered and dwindling upland meadows, with associated bird and wildlife benefits that can be marketed as an Audubon-certified destination.

    I know golfers will scream bloody murder, as well as more than a few OHPA members who are not known for their ability to see the viewpoints of others, but I just hope that an intelligent and open-minded approach will be taken in a master plan process that includes these options I mentioned, following national trends and respecting fiduciary realities. Norwalk taxpayers who golf, and those who do not, deserve this professional and mature approach. The survival of the Oak Hills Golf Course is a noble goal and a priority for most folks, and that includes a serious look a the long-term financial and environmental sustainability of the course for generations to come, which involves looking at ALL options including the actual size of the current 18-hole course.

  9. cc-rider

    If they don’t start new marketing and change asinine rate structure of the golf course the number of holes there is irrelevant.

  10. M Allen

    Time isn’t an issue. Golfers have known for the last 500 years that there is such a thing as a half round of golf. If you don’t have time for 18 holes, your option is 9. You don’t need to take a real golf course and turn into some monstrosity in order for some people to play a reduced round. Those are just the ideas of people with some other agenda. Bicylce paths perhaps?

  11. Suzanne

    M Allen, the research as cited by Mr. Mushak is available to anyone willing to do the Google search and see the studies. Time IS the issue along with the high overhead of maintaining a full 18 hole golf course, a graceful and precise combination of elements that costs a lot to keep that way. The pressure to maintain an 18 hole course is on resources and, in the west in particular, water. Also, chemically treated run-off is just not an option anymore with adjacent waterways: water pollution is very real and impacts a whole host of issues, particularly upon the urban landscape of the Long Island Sound. To call a golf course of less than 18 holes a “monstrosity” tells me you haven’t seen nor played any. Do some research. Find out. It is not the disaster you think it may be. I have personally played a 12-hole course to 18 and found that the way it was designed, the repeat holes played very differently “to the back” than forward. The beginnings of golf just aren’t what we live in anymore: we are not shepherds with thousands of open acres with our staffs hitting stones into rabbit holes. No, we are a more intensely developed city everyday. The golfers have not been supporting themselves for a long time: we are supporting Oak Hills Park. To have just a few people get to enjoy a public facility at the expense of the many? It’s not about bike paths (I am sure you were being facetious) but about dwindling resources we all pay for and should have an opportunity to use.

  12. M Allen

    We could leave it at 18 and change it to a par-3 course as well. Heck, just make it a chip and putt. Or we can leave it at 18 holes of legitimate golf and charge appropriate greens fees to ensure the course runs in the black. But please correct me if I am wrong here as I will happily admit to not knowing for certain, but the actual golf course operations here are not the issue, correct? If the restaurant, and its associated debt, were removed from the equation, does the golf course itself not run in the black already? What if we just cut the restaurant and its debt out from the OHPA? And I am all for having parks that are wide open to everyone all day long. But not every park is like that. I can’t run across the field in Broad River when Little League or Soccer is in session all summer long. Or many other similar locations. Do we begrudge all the ball fields that don’t take in the revenue that Oak Hilss does to offset it expenses? Oak Hills, the golf course, is something that not every town is lucky enough to have. We do. Let’s not cut off our nose to spite our face because it’s not free to roam by all at any time. We just need to be smart about how we manage it.

  13. M Allen

    And by the way, why are we little people debating this at the level that we do? This is campaign season. Where are the candidates on these matters?

  14. Debora

    The marketing plans are coming along, as evidenced by last night’s meetings. The debt is collective to Oak Hills Park,, which includes the restaurant, the golf course, the tennis courts and anything else in or under it that can raise revenue (provided it meets the obligations of the state grant partly funding the purchase of the land, which means open space with public access, including passive recreation). You can’t separate out the restaurant debt. Nobody is questioning the course’s ability to cover its expenses during golf season, but there does appear to be some difficulty managing through the off-season.
    BTW, there is nothing to stop OHPA from raising money from private donors. If a foundation were to make a directed donation (as long as it is not in exchange for use of the park), that revenue can be earmarked for golf and can be excluded from the rent paid to the city.

  15. M Allen

    I recognize that we can’t officially separate the debt related to the restaurant. But when people talk about Oak Hills Park and its cash flow issues, they bring it back to the golf side of the equation and then start talking about changes aimed at the golfers. It seems the golf side of the equation is self-sustaining and that the restaurant, and its debt service, is the issue. But I do recognize that the overall financial health of the OHPA is all-inclusive.

  16. oldtimer

    The restaurant, and the course, could benefit from more active marketing. A little money spent on a good marketing program would more than pay for itself. The old restaurant used to feature live entertainment and draw full house crowds with very little marketing.

  17. Debora

    That’s because all of the significant revenue is coming from golf. The restaurant generates fixed revenue with rent.

  18. Suzanne

    M Allen, Matt Miklave came out against development of the woods a long time ago. I believe other candidates have also weighed in on the issue. Check out their WEB sites! Also, if you don’t see a topic covered there, all of them have places where you can ask a question of the candidate and get an answer. I have done this successfully three times.

  19. Diane C2

    The OHPA voted to go into Executive Session last night for the purpose of the discussing the restaurant “lease payments”. Can’t wait to see if the new lessees are already behind or falling behind. If that is the case, then the entire OHPA must examined! The restaurant management has been saying that they were working out the kinks, but service has reportedly been poor from the day they opened months ago, and they seem unwilling/unable to hire the right quantity/quality of help. If the restaurant fails, is Quattro Pazzi still on the hook for the monthly rent payments???

    Also, of note, is that two substantial changes to the RFP scope were identified as part of the TDRS bid award – substantial enough in my view to put it back out to bid – 1) OHPA has removed the fixed monthly payment requirement
    2) OHPA has included an OPHA/City right of first refusal to buy the operation at every 5-year period of the term.
    Isn’t it possible that other qualified bidders would have submitted bids if they had known these two very critical components could be considered?!

    (Editor’s note: The RFP addresses a monthly agreed-upon fee, plus a percentage of the gross over an agreed-upon amount. It does not state a “fixed” monthly fee. Apparently that is part of the negotiations. Also, the RFP defined a term of “up to 15 years” for the lease. There was no language that precluded a shorter term or that defined options to purchase.)

  20. piberman

    The “smart money” is betting the Oak Hills Authority with the support of our elected officials will fool the majority of City taxpayers to support the golfers’ hobby without ever disclosing a financial plan capable of withstanding public scrutiny. And they will make a mockery of our environmental guidelines by not issuing an environmental impact study that can withstand public scrutiny. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. A City government that can’t see the consequences of siting a BJ Big Box on a heavily trafficked Rt. 7 couldn’t be expected to subject the financial and environmental impacts of the proposing golf range at Oak Hills to public scrutiny either.

  21. Joe Espo

    It takes less time to play a full round of golf than it takes to write a Mushak comment.

  22. Lifelong Teacher

    I have to agree with Mr. Berman. This is a disaster but sadly, our elected officials will probably push it forward. When does this stop?

  23. M Allen

    @Suzanne, I’m less concerned with where the candidates stand on the grove than I am on OHPA in general. What would all of these enlightened candidates do about the “park” in general? Are they for leaving it as is? My bet is they are 100% for the status quo, with some minor words (not deeds) to more tranparency, blah, blah, blah. Or are they for turning it into something more akin to a park open for all the people who say it should be something more than a gift to the golfing minority of Norwalk. I’m sure I could go ask on their website somewhere, but this is campaign season, one would think they could give some insight into their thinking without being prodded by individuals since this story about the OHPA has garnered a lot of public attention. I’ll put my money on they don’t want to say anything one way or the other. Nothing of use anyway.

  24. Suzanne

    M Allen, I hear you. I guess I am just stubborn. I think the power of these candidates is in the constituency. I also think that in the scheme of things, Oak Hills is important (God knows I have written enough about it!) with a “doable” constituency led agenda but in with a lot of other issues that need to be addressed by the candidates: overall urban planning for the town, education, taxation, government process, transparency, etc. But, I also think you are correct – this is an issue bundled into other issues but has clearly been of concern to many. It is not too much to ask that the candidates take this on (again, you are right IMO) head on and that would include the mayor, although we know he would have chopped those woods down in a heartbeat and continues to approve of subsidizing (and I use that word consciously) the sport of a few. I, for one, would like to see the OHPA either dismantled or completely reorganized to reflect real cooperation and openness about management and money. It’s like these people think they are running a mini-Mafia, Omerta, and all that stuff. What do they really have to hide? If not for the pushing of a few, we wouldn’t know half of what we know today and even that, especially the financial “reports” are opaque and minimal. It feels kind of stinky and dishonest: perhaps the candidates could address THAT and insist that Norwalk change in their business affairs in this one matter. Maybe it is time for an experiment: I will ask the question about the more substantive matters you mention above and see what I get back!

  25. M Allen

    For the record, I don’t personally have an issue with the OHPA and certainly not with Norwalk having a fine golf course for its residents to use. It is an absolute jewel on par with our beach. Not everyone uses the beach and not everyone uses the gof course, but like Fodor Farm, they are available for those who choose to do so. But so many of those who have been involved with fighting against the driving range have been vocal about much more than the trees. They are vocal about the Authority and what that park should really be used for. And let’s be honest, chances are these vocal individuals hail from the party currently trying to select a nominee. I think we can agree where Mayor Moccia stand. He hasn’t hid anything as Mayor regarding his point of view regarding Oak Hills. But wouldn’t the public like to know where any of these potential mayors stand with regard to a topic they have been arguing about so passionately? And by the way, trees are nice but I’m going to advocate putting BJ’s in that forest 🙂

  26. Diane C2

    at editors: the fixed monthly fee IS the ‘agreed upon monthly fee’ unless, you are assuming it could fluctuate month-to-month- also, the terms did not include a possible sale every 5 years

  27. tonia barringer

    I am so relieved to hear this decision. What is disturbing to me is the leap to deny that they are “tree-huggers” as if that is a separate concern from economical concerns, like run-off, erosion, drainage- this is all part of the human equation and very much part of the cost of living. Why is there such a desire to distance oneself from those who are trying to balance development with human habitation and recreation? I applaud the efforts of those protecting the woodlands of the Oak Hills Park and those that wisely chose a less environmentally detrimental location for a driving range.

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