Oak Hills master plan heading to Norwalk Common Council for vote

Jim Downing of Total Driving Range Solutions shows off an artists rendering of the proposed Oak Hills Park driving range in November.
Jim Downing of Total Driving Range Solutions shows off an artists rendering of the proposed Oak Hills Park driving range in November.

Updated 6:20 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, with comments from Elsa Peterson Obuchowski.

NORWALK, Conn. – The Oak Hills Park master plan got a tepid thumbs up from Norwalk Common Council members Wednesday, sending it on to the full Council for an expected vote Tuesday.

The Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Committee voted 4 to 3 to endorse the plan, according to Common Councilwoman Eloisa Melendez (D-District A), who voted no.

Committee Chairman Jerry Petrini (R-District D) would have sent it to the full council whether or not the committee endorsed it, she said. Voting for the master plan were Petrini, John Kydes (D-District C), David McCarthy (R-District E) and Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D), a former Oak Hills Park Authority member. Voting with Melendez against the plan were Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) and Michelle Maggio (R-District C).

The plan, which includes the controversial driving range, must be approved by the Common Council before the Oak Hills Park Authority (OHPA) can receive the $1.5 million it has been promised by the state Bond Commission. OHPA members say that will be used for improvements that are independent of the driving range.

The total cost of the improvements outlined in the plan is estimated at $4.5 million. Approving the plan does not mean the Council is agreeing to spend money on it.

“I am not opposed to the plan in its entirety,” Melendez said, calling the goal of getting people from her generation more involved “interesting,” and saying that she was for the nature-oriented part of the plan.

“I wasn’t really feeling the process,” Melendez said.

That was a topic brought up by Diane Cece.

Cece provided her remarks in writing to Nancy On Norwalk (NoN was not at the meeting).

“Every other Norwalk park that has or is about to undergo master planning followed an accepted process: Cranbury Park (with this committee holding a public hearing on it), Veterans Memorial Park (with this committee holding a public information forum on it), Oyster Shell Park (with this committee holding a public meeting on it) and soon the little 2-acre Ryan Park, that this committee will ultimately hold a public hearing on. Who do you think OHPA is, and who are you as our elected officials, to allow them to sidestep a vetted process that ultimately engages all the stakeholders and gives ALL ideas an unbiased forum to be considered?” Cece wrote.

She asked the committee members how they would feel if the same approach was used for parks in their districts. To Melendez, she wrote: “Taxing district parks are what your constituents have for open and green and recreation space – how would you feel if First District Water engaged someone to prepare a master plan without going out to bid and with no formal public process, and that the guy intended to be sure it included removing all the grass and benches to turn the parks into pay-for-use water splash pads?”

“How is it that you can be presented with the master plan just tonight as a sitting committee of the council, hear public comment as a full committee just tonight, and then actually vote tonight on a plan of this magnitude for the 2nd largest park in the city?” Cece wrote. “How is it that you can even consider advancing a plan of this magnitude to the full council next week, knowing it has far reaching consequences for the vision of the park? By doing so, you are saying that you have fully vetted the plan itself, the process under which it was developed, and approve of it. Otherwise, surely you would reject or table this item.”

OHPA member Elsa Peterson Obuchowski said she was concerned with what the plan does not say, and urged the committee to require additions to the plan before signing off on it.

“Let me be clear that I don’t oppose the master plan, I don’t oppose the golf course, and I don’t oppose the driving range,” she said in prepared remarks emailed Thursday to NoN. “Fundamentally, is this master plan a good plan? I’d say yes, but in my view it could benefit from a lot of improvement.”

Obuchowski said the plan as written “falls short of ensuring permanent protection for the woodlands in several ways:

  • It does not define the boundaries of the woodlands other than nonspecific phrases like “behind the restaurant.”
  • It does not state that buildings or other structures are not to be erected in the woodlands.
  • It does not provide for the woodlands’ flora, fauna, and other ecological characteristics to be preserved in a natural state.

“I would urge this committee to require amendment of the Master Plan to address these deficiencies before it can receive committee approval,” she said.

She also urged the committee to look into a list of other ares, including:

  • Soil remediation from the leaking oil tanks that were removed in 2013.
  • Formation of a multi-stakeholder committee dedicated to the woodlands (“Nature Center”) as provided for in the Master
  • Transparency and setting of priorities for spending the $1.5 million State Bond Commission grant tha t was arranged by Rep. Larry Cafero in July.
  • Clarification of payments to Total Driving Range Solutions and their role in execution of the Master Plan.

Two plan dissenters also provided their comments to NoN.

“A large commercial driving range doesn’t belong in an AAA residential neighborhood,” Paul Cantor wrote. “It was only a short time ago that you were congratulating yourselves for opposing the Al Madany Islamic Center’s proposal to construct a mosque on Fillow Street on the principal that the traffic it would generate would undermine the residential character of the AAA zoned neighborhood through which Fillow Street passes.   The driving range would generate much more traffic than the mosque.  So if you were not being hypocritical when you opposed the mosque you should not be supporting the OHPA’s plan to construct a large commercial driving range now.”

“The Al Madany Islamic Center agreed to move its mosque to a more appropriate location,” Yvonne “Myska” Lopaur wrote. “The OHPA should follow Al Madany’s lead if it wants to construct a driving range. In other words, if the authority is certain that a commercial driving range will be profitable it should have it constructed near I-95, Route 7 or Connecticut Avenue, not in a park in an AAA residential neighborhood.”


8 responses to “Oak Hills master plan heading to Norwalk Common Council for vote”

  1. Diane C2

    @NON: Please do not categorize me as a driving range opponent. In fact, I am one of the few people who first came out in favor of a range in Norwalk, just not in the woods of Oak Hills; not negotiated with a single-source, no bid contractor behind closed doors with the former OHPA chairman; not in the absence of being thoroughly vetted for location feasibility and financial viability; not misleading the taxpayers into believing that their taxes wouldn’t be used to fund the project; and not by allowing the driving range winner bidder to develop the park master plan, rather than put the plan design out to bid.

    Also, to be fair, Ms. Melendez may have miscounted the speakers – rather than 4, I believe there were 8 people who spoke against adoption of the plan, most asking the committee to at least table it.
    More importantly, however, is that it wouldn’t have made any difference if even thousands came to speak against approving it and moving it to the full council: Chairman Petrini stated up front, and then reiterated, that he intended to exercise his discretion as Committee Chairman to advance the plan to the Council even if the other 6 committee members voted to table or reject.
    (Editor’s note: That phrase has been removed.)

  2. sofaman

    The last paragraph says it all. Pure hypocritical civic planning. Plus, this is an expansion of the park’s single sport that is unarguably in a downward trend. I play golf. I play golf at Oak Hills. But this makes zero sense.

  3. Suzanne

    It’s like an out of control bulldozer with no tires: no matter how inappropriate and wrong this Master Plan is, telling that the company standing to profit and who wants the millions from Norwalk, is showing the concept drawings above, Chairman Petrini just kicks the can down the road. How much inappropriate information does a Council need to see how wrong this vendor prepared, millions dollar “Plan” is not a good thing for Norwalk? Any numbers yet on just how much this recreational sport enjoyed by a few is currently costing Norwalk in debt service?

  4. Non Partisan Voter

    It’s really unfortunate that the Republican-led Common Council is supporting this master plan that did not in any way, follow the same transparent process that our other park master plans follow. I guess they think that voters will forget about this twelve months from now when they are all up for re-election. I think they may be surprised…

  5. Mike Mushak

    Although I support the concept of the driving range and thought it was well designed, and supported the master plan in general as there are a lot of great things in it, I was always clear in my statements on the record that the master plan process was flawed. I know I sound like a broken record about Mike Greene, but guess who illegally consulted with OHPA during this whole master plan process? Yes, Mike Greene, who was forbidden by the Oak Hills lease to offer any assistance to OHPA without getting OHPA to reimburse the city for his time and his staff’s time. When I brought that inconvenient little fact up, which is only the law as the lease is to protect Norwalk taxpayers from unfair use of city staff as they Re a separate legal entity from the city, I was told Greene was “donating” his time and his staff’s time to OHPA. Yeah, right. Let me see the time sheets if they even exist.

    I was also amused to hear OHPA Chair Ernie Des Rochers complain about the traffic from the mosque while not having offered any traffic study for the driving range that will potentially generate many more car trips than the mosque ever would. Double standard? You decide.

    I served on the advisory committee to the Vets Park Master Plan and Oak Hills, which is a city park also, did not follow this accepted process. With Mike Greene involved, is there any surprise real planning procedures were ignored? That’s his MO that serves no one but himself. But I digress.

    I do not agree with nonpartisan voter above in that this was a Republican backed master plan. Seeing Tepublican Michele Maggio vote against it contradicts that theory. There were also lots of Democrats I know for it, and I supported it as well, as an interim step to get the ball rolling on the improvements, but called for a REAL master plan process to happen eventually by a qualified professional planning firm with park planning experience, so we could accurately assess long term goals for the park including perhaps eventually redesigning the course to 9 holes instead of 18 following national trends.

    To Eloisa, Faye, and Michele, I say thank you for at least trying to get more clarity here and slowing the process down. I know I made few friends among opponents by supporting the driving range and giving conditional approval of the master plan, but let this be one more example of Mike Greene’s flawed leadership in our planning process, as it was his idea to ignore established procedures here. There was also an inherent conflict of interest as he oversees the Conservation Commission staff that should be giving an unbiased review of this project, which is questionable when Greene was also improperly advising this master plan that was largely driven by a private contractor he will them be involved with scrutinizing. No matter where you see Greene’s fingerprints, you can find corruption of process.

  6. piberman

    It would be interesting to learn Common Council members, especially the Finance Committee, have actually read the lengthy consultant reports prepared for the Oak Hills Authority. Odds are pretty good that the Council members have paid as much attention to those reports as they do the City budget.
    The Oak Hill Consultant fanciful financial projections would make even the tooth fairy blush. To help the City make a sensible decision the Council does need to have credible financial projections for the Oak Hills new project. A good first step is having a formal review of the reports by the City Finance Director. Then a public hearing where citizens with financial credentials can give their views. We ought to have a clear sense of credible financial projections for this project. If the financial projections are fanciful then why proceed until more credible ones are obtained ?

  7. cc-rider

    It would be amazing if there was a Topgolf driving range in the location of 95/7 or the proposed BJ’s parcel.

  8. Susan Wallerstein

    Based on recent comments, it’s not clear whether those making decisions about Oak Hills are aware of the many ways golfers and the course administration contribute to Norwalk and its youth. For example several years ago the Men’s Association donated funds, equipment and lessons to a summer youth program at Colonial Village. Oak Hills donates foursome certificates to many Norwalk non-profits fundraising efforts. Besides serving as home course for both Brien McMahon and Norwalk High, the Men’s Association also donates golf balls to both teams. The course also sponsors a local junior golfer’s participation at out-of-state tournaments.

    Juniors play free after 5:00 PM with an adult. Mothers play free on Mother’s Day and servicemen play free on Veteran’s Day. Both the Men’s and Women’s Associations get involved with many local charities, raising funds for breast cancer and donating food and clothing to the Open Door Shelter. Those interested in discussing expanded opportunities for young people need only ask. Clearly golfers and the course administration have demonstrated their commitment to helping when asked or when they become aware of ways they can help.

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