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Oak Hills plan given thumbs up, thumbs down

NORWALK, Conn. – The plan to improve Oak Hills Park received kudos and criticisms Tuesday night.

“You guys are striving for a world-class facility. I think we need to strive for world-class fiscal responsibility, world-class public safety and world-class schools,” said Kevin Kane, a Norwalk citizen, to Oak Hills Park Authority members.

The OHPA public hearing brought perhaps 200 people to the City Hall community room, where most chairs were taken and people stood in the back. OHPA Chairman Clyde Mount and Ad Hoc Driving Range Committee Chairman Ernie Desrochers began the meeting with a presentation pf their “Strategic Plan – a Map to the Future,” before turning over the floor to public speakers.

While the master plan calls for nature and fitness trails, an ice rink, bocce courts and tee upgrades, talk concentrated on the proposed driving range.

Mount said a vote on the plan is two months away. It will go to the Common Council, he said.

Aron Karp, an avid golfer, said the OHPA has a great plan.

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The Norwalk City Hall community room was packed Tuesday for an Oak Hills Park Authority public hearing on its proposed master plan.

“Personally, I think that in spite of what we all believe is the purpose of this park, the mainstay and the greatest asset that this town has is the golf course,” he said. “This town is changing dramatically. If you look around at some of the buildings that are being put up, think about the people who are moving into town. Think about the expense and revenue that is going to come in through those people coming into town. Most of those people would definitely take and want to have some advantage of playing golf. I think there’s a very good percentage of that population that would want to play.”

The plan as proposed would help more people than the golfers as the course will attract people, he said.

“The revenue is not just from 36 bays of practice range or a restaurant,” he said. “I think it will attract more people to this town. At the end of the day, what pays for all of this is tax dollars, so it will help the city overall.”

Kate Tepper, reading a statement from Diane Keefe, said the plan is “woefully inadequate in terms of making the park economically viable,” as it ignores the declining popularity of golf. Keefe hoped the Common Council would evaluate the plan, Tepper said, and asked for “a moratorium on any additional public money to support the golf course.”

Barbara Freilen, a golfer, said more attention should be paid to the tennis facilities. The bathrooms are “old and disgusting,” she said.

Mount said tennis is on the list of things to be worked on.

“We started with what was dying, which was the course,” he said. “We have been working on that. We have now got that to a point where we think, we can now start to focus our attention on other things, because the golf course is what is supporting all that property and all the expenses.”

Ray Kodel, a golfer, said he thought the proposed driving range looked too narrow, and “really crammed.” Otherwise, the plan is great, he said.

Scott Kimmich, a vocal opponent, said it’s not just a golf course, it’s a park. “There are all kinds of things that could be here and should be here,” he said, advocating for a nine-hole course.

Nick Pisano, a golfer, was strident in condemning the opponents.

“They bring up everything they can to fight against our golf course,” he said. “That it doesn’t make money. That’s a lie. They keep saying it, they keep saying it doesn’t make money. It’s made money for years, now it’s breaking even. Normally a business keeps a line of credit. … Don’t believe the naysayers and liars. They keep lying to us. They keep saying the same things.”

Diane Cece criticized the process.

“It seems as if the process that you typically follow for a master plan would not start with this strategic plan and then back into it. This seems to me that it’s backwards,” she said. “… A master plan usually starts with an RFP (request for proposals); you call in qualified planners.”

Mount replied that the OHPA does not have $25,000 to get a master plan.

“There was a lot of public input,” he said. “… Although we don’t have a formalized master plan writer, we have taken a lot into account.”

The Planning and Zoning departments and Conservation Commission have been involved, he said. “We are going through every step that we’re supposed to go through,” he said.

Comments

9 responses to “Oak Hills plan given thumbs up, thumbs down”

  1. bsmith

    Let the golf course move forward and quit wasting time. Not a golfer, not my neighborhood, but this is an asset for Norwalk.

  2. Norwalk4Life

    I am not a golfer and don’t live in the area but I feel like a driving range would be an asset to the community. I may not want to play 18 holes, but I might want to get out to hit a few balls at the driving range with some friends.

    Also, the possibility of other ammenities at the park like a nature trail and ice rink would be great for families.

    Let’s get on with it.

  3. Mike Mushak

    I was all thumbs down when the range was proposed in the woods, but I now applaud the OHPA for working hard to avoid that pristine natural area. The new plan seems to solve many problems and fits in better with the terrain, and the structure and surrounding site plan is attractive and functional.
    .
    If it is built, I hope it is a huge success, but many questions remain about the financial side of this and its potential to actually generate revenue for OHPA. Also, the entire master plan process seems rushed and hobbled together, is being done by a private vendor with a stake in the game (talk about conflict of interest!), and is not following established standards for Norwalk public park master plans as I describe later on.
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    More info is needed on this, as OHPA promised last night, with more public scrutiny, as taxpayers are taking a risk and the last thing we need is another boondoggle. I applaud those who continue to question the feasibility of this proposal, and OHPA has an urgent burden to prove it will work financially BEFORE the process moves too far ahead.
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    If deemed feasible and it is built, hopefully it will make the park a busier destination which will help the restaurant too, which will help taxpayers as the debt will get paid back faster. I also hope a revamped tennis area with new bathrooms, a temporary ice rink and perhaps even swimming pools as were all suggested last night by various speakers can be considered and possibly worked into a LEGITIMATE master plan that follows the OHPA mandate “to maximize the recreation and park use of Oak Hills Park.” (see last line of my long post for the full OHPA charter mandate that is clearly about more than golf).
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    I also applaud the proposal for interpretive signage for environmental education. I was amused at the label “environmentalist” tossed around last night as if they are a distinct species of human. We are all environmentalists in some way, including golfers out enjoying nature on the course. No need for the distinct labels in this day and age, as we have moved far beyond the 1970’s at this point.
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    All that said, the big problem I have with the entire process is that it was rushed before an appropriate park master plan process is conducted by a professional landscape architecture and planning firm. This was highlighted by Diane Cece last night in her comment. OHPA ignored the established master plan process that is followed by our Rec and Parks Director Mike Mocciae on all of our other parks, a process I know well as I served on the master plan committee for the Vets Park Master Plan.
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    After Mr. Mocciae appointed the committee of various stakeholders including neighbors, athletes, harbor and boating experts, and a landscape architect (me), we met and prepared a detailed RFP which was sent out. Many qualified firms from as far away as Boston responded with detailed proposals, and we used a point rating system to select the best 5 firms to interview.
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    Once we selected a firm, several public hearings were scheduled to collect feedback, and the landscape architects then produced a plan that was reviewed again by the committee and the public and revised several times before its final approval and acceptance by the Common Council.
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    The entire process took about 18 months,from March 2011 to August 2012, and cost about $35,000 for the design fee. We all agreed it should have been a higher fee considering the amount of time and work that went into it, but that was all Mike Mocciae could get from the Council at the time. (Most of the firms complained that a truly thorough design process was a challenge for that fee, but it was also 3 years ago at the height of the recession when work was scarcer than it is now. To get highly qualified firms in better times like we are now you have to offer a more realistic fee, say $50,000 for a large park master plan.)
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    Despite the challenges, a beautiful comprehensive plan for Vets Park was completed with detailed cost estimates and phasing over a 20-year period. It didn’t please everybody, and no one on the committee got everything they wanted, which was the point. Balancing competing interests was the goal, and it succeeded, but it took a lot of hard work and sincere dedication by Mike Mocciae who steered it through the challenging process with a lot of public passion on many issues.
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    I do think that eventually the city will have to consider reducing the course to 9 or 12 holes to follow national trends towards financial and environmental sustainability for municipal courses, even if it takes 10 or 20 years, and I may be wrong on that but there are plenty of studies by golf experts supporting that approach. It is simply getting harder and harder for anyone to find 5 hours to play 18 holes, and weather extremes in the northeast including harsher winters, heatwaves and droughts, and torrential rains are reducing the actual good days to play golf. These are realities we need to acknowledge in a “real” master plan, and why a serious master plan process looking at all the studies and trends out there from across the country needs to be followed.
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    I also think local wells need to be tested to insure there is no groundwater contamination occurring now or in the past from heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides ($200,000 per year cost I believe.) I understand a more natural approach is being taken now, but there will always be a need for strong chemicals and fertilizers to maintain the course, and the full impacts of these on the groundwater and surface runoff in the past and into the future needs to be fully understood as part of any master plan process.
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    I was surprised to see P and Z Director Mike Greene there last night, as he is not the staff member to OHPA. Shelly Guyer is the paid staff member(as Executive Director) according to the city website, and OHPA’s charter mission is to manage the park and course separately and distinctly from the city, including financially.
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    Mike Greene is actually the paid staff member to the Zoning Commission, yet he has not been at any ZC meetings in almost a year even though he is paid by taxpayers to attend. I was also surprised to hear that OHPA will use P and Z staff to help with the driving range vendor’s master plan, as it is not in their legal by-laws to use city staff. It is actually the Zoning Commission’s authority given by the by-laws and the city organizational chart to supervise P and Z staff and the Director. This is especially surprising when the staff say repeatedly they have little time to work on long-stalled zoning initiatives, including the TOD overlay for South Norwalk that is years behind schedule and can generate up to $24 million in new revenues for the city if implemented. The P and Z staff were NOT used for any other park master plan in the city because it makes no sense, and they have plenty to do just to keep up with P and Z business. This is very troubling to say the least.
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    Who in City Hall made this decision to use our ZC staff to work on OHPA business? Is it the fact that the OHPA Driving Range Committee Chair Ernie DesRochers is also a former P and Z Chair? Why is Mike Greene AWOL from ZC meetings for almost a year even though he is our designated staff and is paid a generous salary by taxpayers to fulfill his duties by law? How can he suddenly have the time to attend evening OHPA meetings and offer his own and other city staff’s time to help a private for-profit vendor prepare a hobbled-together master plan for the park, that, oh by the way, includes that vendor’s proposal for a driving range, in a process from which the public has been excluded from compared to our accepted standard park master plan process? The conflicts of interest are obvious, not to mention the corruption of process.
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    It is clear the public park master plan process is being grossly mishandled by OHPA, and perhaps even using city P and Z staff inappropriately. That said, I think the attractive driving range proposal that OHPA and the vendor have worked so hard on can stand alone from the currently broken master plan process and should continue (if deemed fiscally and environmentally sound) with a CONCURRENT professional master plan process involving the public that was followed at Cranbury Park and Vets Park by our Rec and Parks Department. OHPA needs to think about a master plan committee of ALL stakeholders, and the city should fund at least $50,000 for a serious plan as it is still a city public park. It will pay for itself in the long run, and even if its not ready until 2017, it will establish a professional and “best practices” approach to all Oak Hills decisions going forward. Now that is a true “road map to the future” to borrow Mr. DesRochers’ phrase.
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    No doubt there is a strong need to do something in the short term however, to improve the draw for the both the restaurant and the course, and it looks like the driving range is the ticket if proven feasible. We can’t afford to get this wrong, yet we can’t afford to wait any longer to make some immediate improvements to increase revenue streams, draw new users, and make the park the best that it can be for ALL Norwalkers, INCLUDING golfers, as clearly described in the OHPA charter below:
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    “There is hereby created, in accordance with the provisions of Sections 7-130a through 7-130w of the Connecticut General Statutes, an authority known as the “Oak Hills Park Authority,” with a principal office located at Oak Hills Park, for the purpose of acquiring, constructing, operating, maintaining and managing the Oak Hills Park, including the golf course, tennis courts and related recreational facilities currently located therein and any related project or projects as defined in such enabling acts and as further defined herein.
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    The Oak Hills Park Authority is created for the purposes stated in Section 7-130a(d) as they relate specifically to public golf courses, including restaurants and driving range and the maintenance and protection of the Oak Hills Park. Nothing herein shall preclude the Authority from providing for other forms of public recreation listed in such Subsection (d) on any land which may be acquired for the primary purpose of golf, and the Authority shall seek to maximize the recreation and park use of Oak Hills Park.”
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    Please note EMPHASIS on the very last phrase: “the Authority shall seek to maximize the recreation and park use of Oak Hills Park.” You see, OHPA is NOT just all about golf, by law, and the beautiful Oak Hills Park is a PUBLIC PARK, not a GOLF COURSE only.

  4. Clyde Mount OHPA Member

    Mike, thanks for the kind comments and I hope you are correct that we are successful in this process. It will be great for all residents of Norwalk to have these enhancements done at the park.

    One question. The master planning process. Can you point me to the document in the City’s Charter, or the SOP in the city’s archives that we can use? In our lease, we do not have any requirements on how the plan is put together, just that there is a plan and we present it to the city. So I could really use the document from the city that states the requirements discussed. This way we can meet the stated City requirements as they are written now and move this process forward. Thanks in advance for helping me to get clarity on the process.

  5. Joe Optimistic

    I have read the OHPA “strategic plan” and what really baffles me is why would and outside agency (Total Driving Range Solutions)want to risk a few million dollars to only hopefully breakeven in 10 or 15 years?

    From reading the plan they estimate the driving range portion and surrounding areas that they would subsidize is about 2.5 million (not sure where the other million plus is coming from I guess the taxpayers of Norwalk?), at prevailing wage rates, which is required because I believe it is still a city owned property , it is EXTREMELY optimistic to think they can do all that work for 2.5 million, but lets say they can.

    So, lets also say they have a 2.5 million dollar note paid back annually at 5% interest which is approximately $240,000 per year. They are ESTIMATING (hoping) the Driving Range will GROSS $450k per year and have expenses of $160k per year netting out $290k

    Would you risk your 2.5 million dollars on this project? How many of these has this company built?

    And please remind me, how does this help the taxpayers and Oak Hills? I guess if (when)this company realizes it’s losing money, we the taxpayers win when the builder goes bankrupt and we have a free range!

    Good luck! Your better off buying lottery tickets.

  6. Suzanne

    $200,000 on pesticides? Get rid of them and you are close to the numbers TDRS is looking for. What I think it is time for is TDRS to reveal their past achievements at public golf course driving ranges with similar demographics and what their “take” has been as well as up front costs. Those gross/net figures seem awfully optimistic and, unfortunately, I feel just a bit skeptical, given the OHPA’s track record of loans and late and/or no repayment (forgiveness of debt.) It is hard to believe that we, the taxpayers, won’t end up footing the bill for this amenity that is a WANT not a NEED.

  7. Joe Optimistic

    Suzanne: you have hit the nail right in the head!,

    what other revenues has this company seen from similar golf projects THEY have built and OPERATED? From the look of their website the answer is $0 because they have never done this before! There is a list of projects they have supplied which were all designs of the architect they have hired, not one by them and none, zero, nada that they have ever operated, so exactly how are they experts? And how did they get this far?

    Your concernes are the same that all Norwalkers should be concerned about – who will foot the bill if started and not competed? Who comes up with the difference in funds to complete the portion of the project TDRS does not want to pay for? What happens if the plan on the table actually doesn’t work like it should?

  8. Mike Mushak

    Clyde, I served on the Vets Park Master Plan Committee (Rec and Parks), and my partner David Westmoreland who is also a licensed landscape architect like myself, and who you know well from serving together on the Historic Commission, served on the Mill Hill Master Plan Committee (Redevelopment Agency) and the Cranbury Park Master Plan Committee (Rec and Parks). The process was the same on all of those park plans regardless of the department. I suggest you talk to either Mike Mocciae or Tim Sheehan who run those departments for specific details on the process. It may seem overwhelming but I can’t stress enough the value of having a professional landscape architecture and planning firm do your master plan for Oak Hills. We do residential work only, but there are many firms big and small who specialize in park master plans, and the expertise they have with working with the public and handling all of the challenging issues of parks like Oak Hills is invaluable. I personally think the city should pay for it unless there is some reason OHPA has to. The plan will pay for itself many times over.

  9. PKN

    Who is going to pay for all of this? Does this developer (TDRS) have the funding?

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