Oak Hills master plan process questioned, debated

Oak Hills Park Authority Chairman Clyde Mount, left; OHPA member Elsa Peterson Obuchowski, right.

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

Dear Elsa,

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.

Diane Cece

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.


8 responses to “Oak Hills master plan process questioned, debated”

  1. Paul Cantor

    Hopefully now that it has been published every member of the Common Council and the Mayor will read Diane Cece’s letter and put and end to the Oak Hills Park Authority driving range/master plan charade. The document that one member of the Authority, Ernie Desrochers, prepared with the help of someone from Total Driving Range Solutions is not a Strategic Plan or a Master Plan. It is a wish list prepared by two individuals without input from the public that calls for millions of dollars of additional taxpayer subsidies to assist in covering the costs of a money-losing golf course. Here is how things have come to this sorry impasse.

    In deference to golfers in Norwalk, The Oak Hills Park Authority was set up as an Autonomous body and given the mandate to see if it could manage an 18-hole golf course in Oak Hills Park so that it covered its operating and maintenance costs. It has not been able to do that because there is no longer sufficient demand in our city to play 18 holes of golf. But rather than recognize this fact the current Authority has redefined its mission as being one to ensure that the 18-hole golf course continues to be subsidized by taxpayers no matter what the cost.

    Hence the fundamental problem from the point of view of taxpayers is one of political economy. Ever since the OHPA was established sitting Mayors and members of the Common Council have found it politically expedient to appoint to it individuals who see themselves as representing the interests of golfers rather than the interests of taxpayers as a whole. Therefore, if matters are allowed to continue as they have been allowed to continue up until now taxpayers can expect that more and more of their money will be used to subsidize the golf course in the future.

    The best solution would be to do away with the Authority and turn the Oak Hills Park over to the Recreation and Parks Department so it can be managed in the interests of all the taxpayers of the city. But for that to happen it will require the Mayor and a majority of the members of the Common Council to step up to the plate and say enough is enough. Hopefully, after hearing Shelly Guyer and Clyde Mont in all apparent innocence ask in response to Diane Cece’s comments what the firm that the Authority selected to construct the driving range had to gain by helping to design a Master Plan for the Park without any input from the public they might do just that.

  2. Sheesh, I wish these people were as adamant when doling out money to NEON and its group of thieves and crooks as it is with something that actual taxpayers would benefit from and the people of norwalk would enjoy.

  3. DeeeeMoooo

    After a few lean years, the OHPA seems to be on a verge of a turnaround. But apparently it’s time to throw in the towel?

    Has anyone discussed the potential cost to taxpayers of turning the park in a non-revenue-generating tract? How much more money will DPW need in its next budget to maintain a park that would add 10% or so more land to manage and maintain?

    And a more significant issue: who assumes the outstanding debt with no revenue (and no payments) from golf operations?

    Repeatedly pointing to a short-term $150,000 loan (essentially a bridge loan during a downturn, and not an uncommon measure in the private sphere) is a red herring. The park has a larger debt that must be paid by someone, and the “answer” we keep seeing is to abandon all hope as though that somehow resets the books to $0.

    Seems to me that closing the course now only creates a bigger financial problem for taxpayers.

  4. Mike Mushak

    I agree with Diane Cece and Elsa Obuchowski, in that the proper established professional process for doing a park master plan that the Redevelopment Agency and Rec and Parks uses is not being followed here. (See Mill Hill, Cranbury Park, and Vets Park for examples, where the process is written right into the plans). Oak Hills MUST follow the same process or there will be questions as to its legitimacy forever. That said, I think the Driving Range Plan is well-designed and would fit well onto the course, and assuming the financials get worked out and justified to everyone’s satisfaction, that plan should be pursued independent of the proper Master Plan process which might take two years longer. I don’t think OHPA should have to wait for the master plan to be done before pursuing the driving range concept, although ideally that would have occurred. It’s not a perfect world we live in, and OHPA has worked hard to get to this point and the driving range should be given a chance to work, but definitely with more scrutiny on the financial side. That’s just my opinion as an outside observer who has seen the course get improved significantly under OHPA’s commitment to excellence recently.
    Long term, perhaps 10 to 20 years, I suspect the course may be 9 or 12 holes following national trends for making municipal courses more financially and environmentally sustainable, but the driving range may be a good part of a more diverse and financially secure recreational future for Oak Hills regardless of what that future looks like. That’s why we need an eventual professional master plan but still pursue the driving range sooner rather than later because of the realities of the current situation.
    In the short term, OHPA might want to consider Audubon Certification as wildlife friendly by reducing pesticide and fertilizer use and using alternative approaches, which would balance environmental and recreational factors as many other courses around the country have done. That would make a lot of folks very happy, including perhaps the hundreds of property owners who rely on wells nearby which are potentially affected by the heavy pesticide use on the course that might be affecting groundwater quality. An Audubon Certification may actually have legal significance someday to protect Norwalk taxpayers from action by property owners (see North Stamford for widespread groundwater contamination issues).
    The current process using a potential commercial tenant to devise the much needed and long awaited Oak Hills Master Plan is full of conflicts. I have suggested that the city (not OHPA) fund at least $50,000 and perhaps up to $75,000 for a professional plan by a park landscape architectural planning firm (there are many) that includes ALL stakeholders on the advisory committee, which is the established process. The plan will pay for itself over just a few years in potential benefits including generating new funding sources including grants.
    I know this process well as I served on the Vets Park Master Plan Advisory Committee, offering my skills as a community activist, zoning commissioner, and licensed landscape architect, and my partner David Westmoreland who is currently Chair of the Historic Commission and also a licensed landscape architect served on the Cranbury Park Master Plan Advisory Committee.
    My position is not making me any friends on either side of this debate, and so be it. I see good intentions on both sides and compromise will be necessary by everyone to move forward. I said the same thing about the Vets Park Master Plan process, in that no one including me and all the other stakeholders on the committee, city officials, and the public got exactly what they wanted, but what we got was a very good plan backed up with a smart mostly civil process that INCLUDED the public.
    That is how you do park master plans.

  5. Debora

    Regardless of whether a master plan normally speaks to the capital plan, THIS master plan has to. That is what the lease calls for. (ARTICLE 1.01 (g) MASTER PLAN: The term “MASTER PLAN” refers to the written overall plan of development for the PARK as prepared by the AUTHORITY and approved by the CITY’s Zoning commission, Planning commission, Common council and Mayor. The approval process shall include a public hearing and, in addition, shall follow the procedure set out in section 8-24 of the Connecticut General Statutes. The Master Plan shall identify in detail the financing, phasing, time tables, planning, marketing,
    construction and other PARK development issues.)

    Given that OHPA is still paying off the debt secured to build a restaurant AND a driving range that wasn’t built (which the lease defines as the “IMPROVEMENTS”, all of the proposed capital work going forward is considered “ADDITIONAL IMPROVEMENTS” (ARTICLE 1.01 (e) ADDITIONAL IMPROVEMENTS shall denote, specifically, those IMPROVEMENTS constructed or installed following the completion of the MASTER PLAN and outside the scope thereof.)

    Lastly, while we are on the subject of legal and proper, the lease also calls for OHPA to be in compliance with all statutes, regulations, etc and the unremediated soil from the leaky tanks would appear to be a violation (unless already remedied?). The OHPA has been advised that the restaurant violates the terms of the state open space grant partly used to finance the purchase of the land, and there is no indication that steps have been taken to remedy that. The lease also requires that OHPA provide written progress reports every six months with respect to capital improvements. Have they done so since they put the driving range out to bid? (ARTILCE 5.01.11 The AUTHORITY shall advise the CITY of all progress concerning the implementation of the MASTER PLAN by the submission of a written progress report to the Department of
    Parks, Recreation and Building Management or its successor every six (6) months during the period when any PARK IMPROVEMENTS are
    being undertaken.)

  6. Mike Mushak

    Debora, that’s very interesting! I have the OHPA charter info from the city website under City Charter, but is the lease you refer to online also? I’d love to see it as it is much more detailed about the process than anything else I’ve seen. It says quite clearly based on your post that the master plan must precede the driving range. Can’t argue with that! Hope we get a real plan and not a rush job!

  7. EDR

    Actually there is an existing master plan that was never approved that included all of the so called improvements that are being discussed. The plan without exhibits was included with the strategic plan. Folks seem to forget that. Speculation is an interesting exercise. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. I suggest that folks read up on all of the research first to get the facts first rather than speculating on what needs to be done. I am sure that the OHPA will provide you with the latest research on the master plan status if you ask.

  8. Debora

    Respectfully…who is creating their own facts? The master plan report you refer to, along with its exhibits (which are a number of maps, a soils report and a traffic study circa 2003 states that in order for the construction to take place, all of the appropriate approvals must be in place, yet much of the work was done in the period from 1999 to 2004 without those approvals. It, too, fails to speak to financing, as called for in the lease.

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