Norwalk Letter: Why Oak Hills Golf Needs A Practice Range

  • Comments (11)

NORWALK, Conn. ‒ The Norwalk Daily Voice accepts signed, original letters to the editor. We reserve the right to edit submissions, but we respectfully ask that you keep your correspondence under 500 words. Please send letters to norwalk@dailyvoice.com.

To the Editor:

As was the case 14 years ago, hysteria and intellectual dishonesty have entered into the debate about Oak Hills. We refer to, of course, the recent Letters to the Editor by Scott Kimmich, Paul Cantor and others, which are full of misinformation and distortions.

We are residents and taxpayers of the City of Norwalk and avid golfers who call Oak Hills our home course. We are also members of the Oak Hills Park Authority who believe that golf is a "game for a lifetime" for people of all ages and backgrounds. 

Oak Hills Golf Course has a distinguished heritage. It was conceived and developed in the 1960s, when golf was becoming an up-and-coming middle-class sport. The architect of Oak Hills, Alfred H. Tull, was a design partner of Devereux Emmet, one of the most noted golf architects of the early 20th century. Tull designed several other great golf courses in the Northeast, including the Country Club of Darien. Oak Hills is something that all Norwalkers can be proud of, even if they don’t golf.

The plan presented to the OHPA at its most recent subcommittee meeting was a plan that was paid for by the authority 14 years ago. It was a plan to lift the course to the level it deserves given its rich heritage. Critics of the practice range have claimed that the specific location is not feasible because of terrain and other issues. The purpose of showing the plan to the community at large was to address those criticisms. The plan also shows what can be done with a first-class local practice range where members of the community, at all skill levels and ages, can come to practice and learn the game of golf. Of course, any range that is eventually built will be subject to the scrutiny of the OHPA.

The practice range plan as presented was to retain as much of the natural terrain as possible. The range would have had target greens rather than a wide-open fairway. It would have had 22 tee boxes for hitting out, not a two-story concrete structure that has been utilized in other towns in the area. It would incorporate the latest in sustainable practices, with nets no higher than 50 feet. The area would not be “clear cut,” as some people have claimed; it would have had large wooded buffer areas around the practice range. Nets and poles would be barely visible at all. The total cost then and now, even with inflation, is a fraction of the $5 million Mr. Kimmich stated.

Unlike the large-scale driving range at Sterling Farms in Stamford, an Oak Hills practice range would be smaller and more in keeping with the beauty that is Oak Hills. Even so, one consultant at our hearing stated that the driving range in the first year alone would easily add 6,000 additional rounds of regular golf at the Oak Hills course. And that’s not counting additional revenue for the restaurant, in-season golf camps, and from the brave souls who play year round. (We are sure the OHPA will provide for year-round stalls if feasible.)

Poor weather and resulting course closures last season prompted the OHPA to ask for and receive approval for a working-capital loan from the city to cover expenses through the winter months. A review of its budget for the remainder of the year indicates that Oak Hills will be profitable for the full year at its current level of annual play. By contrast, apart from Oak Hills, the city spends $3.5 million to operate and maintain the other 1,215 acres of park space. So everywhere but Oak Hills, it is the taxpayers who are supporting all of the outdoor activities enjoyed by the residents of the city.

The members of the OHPA are all committed to seeing that the course achieves and maintains the high standard it has enjoyed in the past. As part of our commitment to excellence, earlier today the OHPA announced the hiring of a new superintendent who was a former senior associate superintendent at The Stanwich Club, a top 30 U.S. Golf Course. We are already looking forward to this season!

Building a practice range is an important component for the long-term viability of Oak Hills as a premier and valuable asset for the city of Norwalk. Only a very few people were able to deny Norwalkers this recreational resource last time. Let's not let that happen again. Those in favor need to let the OHPA and the city know that they support the efforts of the OHPA.

Ernest DesRochers, Shannon Giandurco and Clyde Mount

  • 11
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Comments (11)

Diane C2:

dunnebster: I'm very surprised at your last post, and a bit disappointed. As someone who fights fervently for fiscal responsbility in this city I would think you more than most would applaud those of us who show up, ask the tough questions, and demand some accountability from anyone watching the books (at OHPA, the BOE and the City).
By the way, where can you or I sign up in City Hall for a loan to tide us over until we get our tax refund to pay our property tax for 1.55% and a 10-year term? Same situation as OHPA, sir, in that they didn't budget or manage particularly well and now they can't pay their bills.

Diane C2:

Now the back-peddling, history re-writing and 'spin' has begun from three OHPA members - let's recap:

1) They've gone from calling it a Driving Range, which denotes behemoth footprint with many bays to a Practice Range, which sounds smaller, kindler and gentler.

2) They seek to trivialize and dismiss taxpayers who are asking legitimate questions by dubbing them as "hysterical and intellectually dishonest" so to entice others to disregard the them.

3) They portray themselves as the purveyors of truth and transparency when addressing the latest (nay, 14 year old) plan for the driving range, but don't disclose in their letter that the rendering and scope of this plan was literally sprung upon the public at the beginning of a Public Hearing on a different plan!

4) They describe the driving range as almost bucolic, and it indeeds sounds that way compared to what they really wanted to do. All along many of us suspected this band of "driving range at all expense" radicals would use a tactic often used by local developers: I call it “the reverse bait and switch”. It goes something like this:
First, submit a plan for something so offensive and not in keeping with the neighborhood characteristics that it serves to smoke out all the opponents. Next, label those opponents and anyone who dares to ask questions as "ignorant, negative, against progress, anti-golf.....". Next, keep these same taxpayers at bay and make getting even the smallest amount of information ahead of time impossible for them, so that it seems that nothing the OHPA does can satisfy those who dare to ask questions. And finally, voila, present another seemingly less offensive plan, but one that still has questionable merits, so they can say "Gosh, what do these folks want? We scaled it back - we saved the environment- we lowered the nets - nothing will satisfy them". This gets OHPA off the hook from holding a Public Hearing on the real plan before they issue an RFP as they will cry 'But we already had a public hearing - how many hearings do these people want?!"

5) Give a statistic that supports your case, but do not acknowledge the opinion of seasoned golf professionals and superintendents whose data proves otherwise.

6) Blame Mother Nature on the woes of the course, instead of the lack of planning for such events, and the failure to supplement monthly reserves at a level to ensure loan pay back and coverage for winter operations. It's not just the money they lost at Hurricane Sandy, but the tens of thousands they amassed from April to September that served only to cover just the loan. The robbing peter to pay paul must have gone on for months, but the jig was finally up in October, BEFORE the storm.

7) Instead of recognizing that over a thousand signatures were collected during the last attempt to construct a range, the OHPA members describe the effort as that of "a very few people....who were able to deny....recreational resource". Nice spin, folks. I wonder how OHPA would feel if a developer comes in tomorrow with plans to build a beautiful new driving range elsewhere in Norwalk? Perhaps a "very few" of the "driving range at all expense" supporters would be looking to deny Norwalkers of THAT recreational resource?

So now that the “spin” is in effect, let’s hope that concerned Norwalkers (golfers and non-golfers alike) will evaluate the facts and decide for themselves if the OHPA is above board with their intentions, is being transparent with taxpayers, and if a civil discussion on the woes of the OHPA and the possible remedies is in order.

dunnebster:

Nice tirade, Connected. But to pick out just one example of your mangling of the facts, that $150,000 is simply a bridge loan to cover one season hit by unusually bad weather. A loan is not a grant, as you imply. It's expected to be paid back. The rest of your rant is similarly marred by distortions.

Diane C2:

@dunnebster: In defense of 'connected', let me say that for a short period of time there was much confusion over whether the request went into the Board of Estimate and Taxation as a loan or not. Because the BET uses the word "appropriation" and not loan on their agenda, it appeared that they might simply give the money to OHPA. It was subsequently determined thru communications with Finance Director Hamilton that the request was indeed for the a and that is what was considered and ultimately approved by both the BET and the Council's Finance Commitee. The matter moves on to the full Council ths Tuesday at 8pm.
If you are interested, prior to the Council meeting the OHPA Ad-Hoc Driving Range Committee is meeting to discuss the Driving Range RFP (7pm in the 2nd floor lounge).

Connected:

Very kind of you to point this out especially as a service to this newspaper and others: the $150,000 was never represented as a "bridge loan" from my reading sources. Are you saying the OHPA magically anticipated snow for the winter season? The truth is, they did not have the money they needed going into this winter.

The "unusually bad weather" to which you refer, I believe, was the particularly wet winters of seasons past that drastically reduced rounds and for which the OHPA closed the course. Vinny Grillo expressed in Letters to the Editor in the Hour that he advised the course be opened when the weather turned which the OHPA refused.

The result? Lost revenue to other courses that DID open. Not a managling of the facts but reported and in print. And if the OHPA is expected to pay back the $150,000 the way they have paid back the capital funds of 3.1 million dollars, a large balance of which is remaining and considering to be "forgiven", why are we to trust the OHPA to run Oak Hills and repay the $150,000 any better?

This is kind of cute: it's like all of you pro-OHPA people got together and decided to run a "distortion" campaign. It's not working: I don't believe you and I don't think many others do unless blindly following the Virgulak lead. Can you imagine it? I am a golfer who believes in fiscal responsibility and conservation. We exist. Get used to it.

Connected:

This letter is so warm and fuzzy. As a golfer I appreciate the history of the course and its beauty. As a taxpayer, I could not wish hard enough for this OHPA to be gone and replaced by a transparent and open group of people who does not believe everyone of us is their enemy.

Focussing on the history, the kids, the new pro, wow! How nice! But, hey, what about that $150,000 you want from taxpayers to support a course most of Norwalk cannot use? Of how about that balance of $3.1 million that looks like it is going to be forgiven, right out of Norwalk's taxpayers' pockets?

All this joy for a practice range (which, mysteriously appeared when a driving range was proven unfeasible in the selected location) with a 14 year old plan that misrepresents what netting height and poles will look like and the impossibility of "buffering" its existance away to neighbors or, for that matter, to the wetlands and streams on the east and north sides.

And what about the feasibility of a practice range? Eight point one miles. That's it. That's as far as you need to go from Oak Hills to hit a bucket of balls, 8.1 miles. Meantime, the ebb and flow of all of that empty space near the proposed practice range hole "platforms" needs to go somewhere when it is raining hard: that's right, right into the wetlands.

Why don't you guys focus on golf? Please? Education? Tournaments? Keeping the Course in "sterling" shape? Removing barriers to "pay and play" instead of putting more barriers up with residence passes?

My dream for Oak Hills: I get to show up in a beautifully, untouched, wooded environment: a few are practicing at the putting green, some are leaning against the snack bar, some folks at the outdoor tables at the restaurant, someone leaving the pro shop with a shirt tucked under the arm and, when I get to the beginning of the course with my clubs and cart, I see a huge group of kids practicing at the practice range (yes, one already exists!), I see groups of ladies and men separated throughout the course, club play, and I have to wait, maybe fifteen minutes, for the foursome ahead of me to start and move on, it's that busy.

No destruction of untouched woods that are irreplaceable. Go for a walk, Ernest, Shannon and Clyde, see what you propose to destroy.

LadyLisa:

Seriously? Two of the biggest loudmouths (assuming it is indeed even two different people) on this topic start writing that there are half-truths and claiming that there are FOIA violations, with no evidence. Let people draw their own conclusions based on what is presented...

bbow41:

If the presentation at the OHPA subcommittee meeting was meant to address criticism of a 14-year old plan, it was a big failure. There were no specifics, just a conceptual drawing and some vague descriptions. Advertised as a meeting to discuss an RFP, the presentation was just a long winded distraction. In addition, touting the so called "large woodland buffers" and 6,000 additional rounds of golf to be produced by the plan is evidence of willfully ignoring inconvenient facts.

Diane C2:

Seriously? THIS letter is filled with more half-truths and misinformation than a city public works committee meeting!
The "plan" to which the Authority members now refer was literally sprung on unsuspected residents at the beginning of the Public Hearing held to hear comments on the plan from last summer! Talk about a bait and switch and complete disregard for FIOA and generally accepted protocol for a public hearing - ridiculous that you publish a notice for a meeting on one plan, and then hold the meeting relative to one that no one has seen in 14 years, or ever.
More to come.....

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