NORWALK, Conn. – The latest insurrection faced by the Oak Hills Park Authority came from its own Thursday, golfers opposed to the selection made by authority members of a driving range proposal that would put it between the first tee and sixth green, people who thought the woodlands behind the restaurant would be preferable.
The golfers got a fast rebuttal from OHPA Ad Hoc Driving Range Committee Chairman Ernie Desrochers, who said the selection was made for business purposes, not to preserve the woods behind the restaurant. Jim Downing of Total Driving Range Solutions went on to refute claims by the golfers that his driving range will be too narrow if it is put near the sixth tee, explaining that his proposal calls for shaving a hill to widen the field and give extra height to the net to catch balls.
Downing’s plans were unveiled to the public for the first time: With the modifications to the park and the way the driving range is proposed to sit, it would be 250 yards long. The “blue tee” would be moved, but it won’t lose yardage because golfers would hit their drives over the pond, which would allow them to see the green, Downing said. The first deck of the double-decker driving range would be heated. Automatic tees would bring balls up every four seconds, which would help people with bad backs and speed up play, Downing said. A shuttle service would transport bags for golfers, he said.
Five golfers spoke at the beginning of the meeting to protest the driving range plan, which was announced in August and has been in the process of negotiation.
Norwalker John Sharkey said the range would be a disruption and a distraction, that the site selected was bad because the sun blinds golfers in the afternoon.
Jim Deering was present only in writing, as Sharkey and another man read a letter he had written. Driving ranges are usually separate from golf courses and 95 percent of the golfers are against the plan, the letter said. The range would be too short behind the sixth green, golfers would be hit by flying golf balls and Norwalk will become the laughing stock of the golfing community, he wrote.
Connor O’Brien, a Brien McMahon High School junior and captain of the golf team, said the woodlands would be better. “It’s not true to say that any driving range is better than no range,” he said.
Desrochers reminded everyone that the proposal isn’t just for a driving range. As part of the deal Total Driving Range Solutions plans to develop a long-needed master plan for the park, “so we can figure out a way to provide uses for everybody.”
“The decision on its location was made from a business perspective of which operator provided a better plan for the park with respect to the amount of rent we will collect over the period of the lease,” he said. “We expect that, by the third year, our income that we will collect off the lease will probably be somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000. Our deal is to collect 15 percent of the gross revenues from the range.”
Tad King of King Golf International, who proposed building in the woods, would not agree to pay as much rent as Downing, he said.
“While both ranges had pros and cons, we felt that Mr. Downing’s proposal served the needs of the park authority very well in terms of the amount of revenue that it would generate, but also in terms of what it provided the community with respect to the comments the neighbors had made during the whole process,” he said. “I have to tell you, I find with some bemusement people coming up here tonight making comments about the range. As far as I know, the only people who have seen the proposal is Clyde and I.”
Downing said the hill would be shaved straight down at its peak. That would result in a 75-foot high natural wall, with a 20-foot net on top.
“Netting will contain most of the balls,” he said. “I can’t say it will catch all of the balls, that’s impossible. This will be high enough so no one is going to be hit in any way.”
Downing said that planners had studied the sun. This time of year the sun is much lower, he said, but in the summer it won’t be so bad.
“It’s going to be there somewhat. Is it going to hurt completely? No. You’re still going to be able to hit the ball, you’re still going to be able to see mostly where it lands,” he said. “During the summertime it’s higher when you’re practicing a lot, so when we did the study as to where it went, you’re able to see the ball hit the end of the driving range.”
Construction would take four months, he said. The idea is to start in winter, he said, but added that he didn’t know how long Norwalk’s permitting process would take. The cart barn will be moved and the holes rearranged first so as to minimize the impact on golfers, he said.
“It’ll bring in more revenue, it will be safe, but it will be able to bring in more people as well,” he said.
“The golf course looks great, it’s the best that I’ve seen it, so we don’t want anything that’s going to hurt the golf course or that is going to hurt the play of golf as well.”