NORWALK, Conn. — A silent outcry has arisen in Norwalk, sending an overwhelming message in support of keeping the Oak Hills Park golf course 18 holes — even though no one in the position to change anything was seriously considering anything else.
More than 1,600 signatures have been collected under the message, “We want Oak Hills Golf Course to remain 18 holes, to continue to improve course conditions and provide a superior experience for all park users,” in an online petition posted in early May.
Government leaders say they are not considering turning Oak Hills into a 9-hole course, although the idea has been advocated by some people attending Oak Hills Park Authority meetings. About 300 of the signatures were obtained after OHPA sent out a May 15 email blast to the park’s fans, which gave rise to questions at last week’s OHPA meeting from government watchdog Diane Cece about the legality of using official city email for political purposes.
“I asked Ed (Ruiz) to send it, so if anybody is in trouble I am,” OHPA Chairman Clyde Mount said, in response. “… Of course we would go out to the golfers for support. They are the people who use the park.”
NancyOnNorwalk sent Mayor Harry Rilling an email Sunday explaining that there was a petition and an email to Sunday. “I … wonder why this was even needed. What precipitated it?” he replied. An NoN reply email asked if anyone in Norwalk government is seriously considering making Oak Hills a 9-hole course. Rilling replied, “No.”
NoN emailed Common Council Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) and asked, “Is there any support among council members for making Oak Hills a 9-hole course? Any thought for dissolving the authority and putting back under Recreation and Parks?”
“No,” Kimmel replied. “We haven’t discussed these issues, at least I haven’t.”
Why, then, would OHPA send out an email to its customers asking them to sign a petition?
“The argument has been presented at numerous OHPA meetings as well as at the last public session in the community room and the argument is very flawed,” Mount said in a Sunday email. “Just check the minutes of the meetings or comments on your site. I want the mayor and council to know as this vocal minority speaks about their vision for the park and its golf course, the opposition is strong against reducing the course down in size. There are over 1,800 sigs already.”
That includes signatures collected on paper petitions available at the course and in the Oak Hills Restaurant on the Green.
Mount said he is aware that the mayor and the council have not been speaking about making Oak Hills nine holes. “If you look at the public comments you will see there are people arguing this point. I think it is a very important point to get across to all that course will not shrink in size,” he wrote.
Rilling said he receives “lots of correspondence regarding Oak Hills and the driving range, the OHPA master plan, converting to nine holes.”
Cece said in a Sunday email that her problem with the email was based on the process to develop a master plan for the park.
“My objection is to them using OHPA resources to solicit responses that ONLY favor one side of the opinion, and is in lieu of any attempt by them to survey the residents of Norwalk, a practice that was common among the other park master plan processes,” she wrote. “OHPA should be soliciting a master plan and ALL ideas in an impartial, unbiased manner. in my humble opinion of course.”
The online petition that was posted on MoveOn.org in early May by “C. Browne” challenges “a small minority who wish to reduce Oak Hills from its current 18 holes to just 9 holes.”
It’s clear that some of the people signing online were not aware of the issue before hearing about the petition.
• “Hey politicians! Do we need more condos?? More development??? NO,NO AND NO!! Eat up all the open spaces. IDIOTS, leave the golf course alone!!!!! Run the city efficiently get out of our back yard,” Norwalker Robert Hayduk wrote.
• “This is Crazy,,People Bought their houses Years ago To Overlook A magnificent Piece of property,,,Some of the Only open space Left in this Ever growing City,,Leave Something for the youth of Our City,,There is Plenty Of housing going up on west ave,,Buy the same Money hungry Builders/Investers who shut Down mom and Pop Shops all over this Town To line their Pockets with Money ,,,,,and Now They want to buy up The GREEN Space,,,Totally Disagree with with this proposal!!!” Norwalker Thomas Yaggi wrote.
• “You don’t need more condos that will sit empty in a state where the housing market is in a slump. Think of the neighborhood and the people instead of extra lining in your pockets!” Anita Hambor of Milford wrote.
OHPA adversary Paul Cantor is a frequent advocate of a 9-hole course. On Sunday he dismissed the validity of the petition.
“It is easy for a special interest group — a club or a group of golfers — to generate signatures on a petition from themselves, members of their families and friends. The signatures do not represent a scientific survey of the general population. And they are certainly not representative of the views of the majority of citizens of Norwalk, most of whom do not play golf,” he wrote in an email.
His email continued:
“The nine-hole solution is something that has been proposed by many golfers as this quote from an April 18, 2014 story in the New York Times makes clear:
“’golf has lost five million players in the last decade … with 20 percent of the existing 25 million golfers apt to quit in the next few year.’ Hence, ‘In recent years, golf courses have encouraged people to think of golf in six-hole or nine-hole increments.’
“The OHPA is overseeing the operation of a money losing golf course. A nine-hole golf course may also lose money but not as much. And it would serve the interest of the overwhelming majority of golfers while freeing of space in Oak Hills Park that might be used for other purposes appropriate to a public park.
“The proposed driving range is not a solution to the Oak Hills Park Authority’s financial problems. Rather it is more likely to add to them. The Mayor is dead wrong to claim that the nine-hole course will be the demise of Oak Hills Park. The only thing it will be the demise of is a money-losing 18-hole golf course that imposes costs on all taxpayers while benefiting a small minority of them.
“So will I continue to advocate for a nine-hole course? I will continue to seek a solution to the controversy regarding how a park belonging to all the taxpayers of Norwalk is managed. It should be managed in the interest of all the taxpayers of Norwalk.
“But the OHPA does not manage Oak Hills Park in the interest of all the taxpayers of Norwalk. Rather, it views its mandate as championing the interest of a minority of most relatively well off male golfers at whatever cost to the rest of the taxpayers of Norwalk. And its response to those who object to its lack of transparency and disregard of the interest of the majority of citizens of our city is a rally the troops response.
“But in order for the Park to be managed in the interest of taxpayers so a nine-hole course will be something that is considered it must be turned over to the Recreations and Parks department. The Oak Hills Authority is an autonomous body that, as noted above, champions the interest of golfers at the expense of the majority of taxpayers. And the hail fellow one and all relationship it has with elected representatives is not a healthy one.
“So my view is that the Park should be turned over to Recreations and Parks and Recreation and Parks should manage the park in the interest of all taxpayers. And in doing so they might consider reducing the size of the golf course to nine holes as one possible course of action.”
OHPA members said Thursday that the financial picture at Oak Hills continues to improve. Park Executive Director Shelley Guyer rounds in April were slightly ahead of those last year, a 7.12 percent increase. Revenue is up 21.3 percent, he said, because many of last year’s rounds were sold at a discount.
Ruiz, the course’s golf pro, said there has been a “great deal of increase in daily activity.” The first of eight golf clinics for youngsters sold out, he said, with 19 participants, he said.
“Just to see 6- to 11-year-olds running around with bags is a real good indicator that golf is on the rise again,” he said.
Mount delivered a soliloquy at last week’s OHPA meeting on the 9-hole topic.
While “The idea to cut the course back to nine holes seemingly on its surface makes sense for some … revenue would be reduced to $350,000 a year at best based on three surrounding nine-hole courses, one located in Milford, one located in Fairfield, one located in Stratford. We have documented from two, expect to have the third before the public hearing. The two we can confirm are less than $300,000 a year in sales.”
That would mean Oak Hills would no longer be self-sustaining, he said. The restaurant would close and 20 jobs would be lost, including the superintendent and golf pro, he said. OHPA would not be able to pay its debt to Norwalk, he said. And, “That is nothing compared to the cost to repurpose the park for other uses,” he said.
He urged OHPA members to stay the course, not to be “scared off by the vocal minority.”
“I am not ‘damn the torpedoes,’” he said. “I am not doing things that I don’t think are good for the city and good for this park. I am doing what I think is right.”