Correction, March 25, “public hearing” changed to “public information session.”
NORWALK, Conn. – The “free” master plan being drawn up for Oak Hills Park is not being developed in accordance to city protocol, a Norwalk activist says. Members of the Oak Hills Park Authority say otherwise.
Diane Cece expressed her opinion at the latest OHPA meeting with the help of Friends of Oak Hills Park member Bill Wrenn and OHPA member Elsa Peterson Obuchowski, who read a letter from Cece, who was under he weather and unable to attend.
OHPA Chairman Clyde Mount took exception to Cece’s comments, both from the letter and at the recent public hearing on the topic, saying, “We are not doing anything illegal as we are accused over and over again.”
Cece’s letter is as follows (italics, red lettering and other formatting by Cece):
Elsa Peterson Obuchowski — Oak Hills Park Authority Member
Thank you for doing due diligence on the process of park master planning as it relates to the document recently presented to the public as the “Oak Hills Park Strategic Plan.” I’m sorry I can’t be at the meeting tonight, having been knocked out this week by the flu. I appreciate your sharing my comments below with the Authority:
First, it would be helpful for the public to be apprised of who exactly comprises the Master Plan Committee, when and where they meet, and through what means do they make their minutes available. Also, do they provide a written report at the monthly OHPA meetings or simply a verbal overview?
Second, for as far back as June 14, 2007, and perhaps even earlier, there has been an agenda item for OHPA called “Master Plan Committee” – are there documents or records of any kind that would provide insight as to the purpose of the committee, their progress, and what exactly has been their output for the past 7 years?
Third, as to the master plan process: though there is no city code that requires a specific process for developing master plans, there is a long-established process within Recreation and Parks and the City Purchasing Department that ensures all prospective bidders are provided full information and an unbiased consideration of their bids. There is an accepted bid process which all departments adhere to. The offer of a “free” plan by an OHPA vendor sidesteps the process.
I believe OHPA has set a precedent by accepting a “strategic” plan (albeit pro bono) from Total Driving Range Solutions (TDRS), a third party who is the winning bidder for the driving range project. TDRS has a vested financial interest in both the development and adoption of a master plan that would include a driving range as specified in their own bid. I believe it is a conflict of interest for them to be both a driving range vendor to OHPA and to develop the master plan.
While it’s true that the development of Master Plans can be expensive ($20,000 to upwards of $100,000), the OHPA should have been well-prepared to comply with the city requirement to produce a master plan, setting aside money annually in their own capital budget for a Master Plan fund, or perhaps coordinating with Recreation and Parks, as OHPA simply leases the park from the city. The plans for Cranbury Park and Veterans Memorial Park were awarded to bidders under $35,000 each. Had OHPA set aside just $5,000 annually over the past 10 years, today they would have had $50,000 for a professional Master Plan from a qualified firm!
Perhaps of most importance, however, is that the city historically requests the prospective bidders to be prepared to work closely with an Advisory Committee, and to be prepared for public interaction on multiple levels, ranging from surveys to public forums and design charettes. The Master Plans for Cranbury and Veterans Memorial Parks included Advisory Committees, comprised of a cross-section of city departments, and public representatives, including sporting organizations, residents, abutting neighbors, preservationists, environmentalists, and organizations with vested interest in park and open space management.
See text below, which is standard in the RFP’s for Master Plans:
The successful consultant shall develop and utilize innovative and cost effective methods to generate and maximize public participation in the development of this Master Plan. In addition, the consultant shall work with the Recreation and Parks Department along with public officials City departments, authorities and agencies, interested individuals and community groups that represent a diverse range of parks and recreation users.
a. One (1) or two (2) orientation meetings with the City, Recreation and Parks Staff, and the advisory committee to review the proposed work plan, timeline and specific details of the Master Plan and its progress.
b. A minimum of three (3) meetings and/or presentations to the City, Recreation and Parks Staff, and the advisory committee at various project milestones.
c. Three (3) community meetings to solicit a broad based of community input.
d. Set aside an allowance of a minimum of one (1) public design meeting with other community groups, yet to be determined.
e. A minimum of two (2) meetings with the Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs Common Council Committee.
f. One (1) public meeting with Recreation and Parks Staff, and the advisory committee at the time of the adoption of the Master Plan.
g. One (1) public meeting with the Norwalk Common Council at the time of the adoption of the Master Plan.
In my opinion, in order for any plan for Oak Hills Park to be considered valid, the Oak Hills Park Authority, at a minimum, should:
1. Seek funding from all available resources to conduct a formal RFP for a Master Plan, adhering to the accepted practice used for all other city parks;
2. Adhere to the City of Norwalk Purchasing guidelines to ensure the bid process is fair and meets all legal requirements for City bids;
3. Establish a Master Plan Advisory Committee by engaging a diverse group of park stakeholders, including, but not limited to: those representing the multiple current and potential park uses (golf, tennis, hiking, ice skating, swimming, outdoor theatre, etc); City of Norwalk Recreation and Parks, Zoning, Conservation, and other relevant departments; abutting neighbors; Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations, West Norwalk Association and Friends of Oak Hills Park; landscape architects, etc.
4. Ensure the winning bidder is prepared to conduct at least the minimum requirements for public meetings and for data gathering;
5. Include any other prior studies and plans for consideration by the Advisory Committee and Master Plan developer, including the document currently published as the “Oak Hills Park Strategic Plan”.
While attending a recent meeting with Recreation and Parks Director Mike Mocciae related to an upcoming Master Plan for another city park, I asked him if anyone from OHPA had sought his input or guidance regarding a Master Plan for Oak Hills. He indicated that no one had approached him, but did say he would assist in ensuring the standard procedures for park master plans is followed. He is aware that I would be sharing the RFP’s for recent Master Plans with the OHPA. Copies of the actual final Master Plans are available on the city website, and the RFP’s for each can be found online through the city purchasing department.
Although the Strategic Plan should be taken into account when developing a park Master Plan, I urge the OHPA to take a step back and not issue the Strategic Plan in lieu of a fair and legal Master Plan. The public at large always feels better about acceptance of plans, even if they don’t agree with them, as long as they’ve had the benefit of their input being heard and considered during the creation of the Master Plan. In the absence of this, surely even the vocal pro-driving range contingent would agree the OHPA process was at best, not fair, and at worst, it possibly side-stepped (deliberately or unknowingly) the city purchasing and contract procedures.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
After reading the letter, Obuchowski said she was “really perplexed” by similar comments made by Cece at the March public information session. But she had asked around and found that, “There is no written formal process for developing a master plan for the city.”
“We, too, spent a lot of time digging through the city to try to find a standard operating procedure for building a master plan,” Mount said. “There is not one. We are not going anything illegal as we are accused over and over again. We are following the guidelines that are set forth in the Norwalk master plan. To say we haven’t had public comment also isn’t a fair thing. We have nothing but public comment at these meetings.”
Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said there is no legal process for a master plan, according to Mount.
Obuchowski pressed, asking if it were unethical for Total Driving Range Solutions to be drawing up a master plan when it includes plans for a driving range it intends to build.
Executive Director Shelley Guyer said, “I don’t see how they are going to gain.”
Mount agreed that making TDRS help with the master plan is costing the company money, without any gain to the company.
“While we have been accused of not listening to the public, we’ve made them add bathrooms (to the driving range plan). We’ve made them change lighting. We’ve made them change screens. We’ve made them change a lot of stuff,” Mount said. “They have not come back to us and said here’s the price. So I don’t see it either. They were selected. This is being done because it hasn’t been done since 19-whatever. It’s never been approved and in order to move forward on a transparent level we are trying to get a master plan done.”
Obuchowski suggested asking the authority’s lawyer, Randall Avery, about the topic. Guyer said he would take care of that.
Obuchowski said the plan doesn’t say where the money will come from to implement the recommendations. Mount said he has worked on Master Plans for Mill Hill Park and Cranbury Park.
“True master plan normally doesn’t address where the money is going to come from. It puts down on paper where the park is to go,” he said.
New OHPA member Joe Kendy, an attorney, said that, in his experience with working with non-profits, a strategic plan is drawn up and capital plan is formed afterward.
“Without (a plan) you don’t have the motivating factor for the donors to contribute the money to get the project done,” he said.
Ad Hoc Driving Range Committee Chairman Ernie Desrochers was not present at the meeting but Mount had a document from Desrochers to distribute. The draft response to comments made at the March public hearing will be available to the public later this week, he said.
Mount said a public hearing on the master plan would be set up in April.