NORWALK, Conn. – If Norwalk’s Oak Hills golf course is ever going to thrive, it needs a driving range to help generate much needed operating revenue, proponents say. But critics believe a driving range on what’s left of the park’s natural setting would be another financial boondoggle that would ruin the environment forever.
Believers of both opinions turned out in force at a public hearing Wednesday night in the Community Room in City Hall to hash out the future of the proposal before the Oak Hills Park Authority. The authority, which has debated – on and off – whether to build a driving range for well over a decade, is in the midst of creating a request for proposal (RFP) document for the range.
Of the nearly two dozen people who spoke during Wednesday’s hearing, a little more than half said they supported the plan, which tentatively calls for a developer to build the range on between 200 to 280 yards of land near the park’s currently vacant restaurant.
“It’s inconvenient to have to get in the car and drive 20 minutes to Ridgefield or Stamford to practice your game,” said Norwalk High School golf coach Ray Kodel, referring to public driving ranges in those two communities. Kodel and others said that a driving range would allow children and other newcomers to golf to learn how to play and become future customers of the course.
“In other towns, they want the best for their kids and that’s what I want here in Norwalk,” Kodel said.
Anita O’Brien, whose Greenwich-based firm, AOB Studio, studied building a range at Oak Hills more than 12 years ago, said the authority could seek Audubon certification for the park and driving range, which could be a benefit in marketing the facility.
“I was excited about this project because it was environmentally sensitive and a great asset to the city,” O’Brien said.
Former Common Council member Bill Krummel, who opposes the range, said the authority’s draft RFP was not specific enough to help the city avoid problems. “There are too many cases of developers starting projects, leaving holes in the ground and then coming back looking for more money,” Krummel said. “And park land, once it’s destroyed, is not retrievable.”
Paul Cantor, a West Norwalk resident and vocal critic of the range, agreed and said he is skeptical the driving range could adequately help cover the golf course’s overall spending. “Recently, due to a drop in demand for rounds or mismanagement or both, the golf course has been operating in the red.”
However, Nick Pisano said that when the authority looked into a range several years ago, it discovered that Stamford’s Sterling Farms range generates about $800,000 per year, and Norwalk’s range was estimated to make at least half that much if not about $600,000.
Authority member Bob Virgulak said the group is planning to hold another meeting on Feb. 26 for more discussion on the RFP.
“We’re going to address the concerns of both sides,” he said following the conclusion of the two-hour public hearing. “The environmental concerns are important to all of us.”