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May 21, 2009

Disc Golf in Burlington — Like Gitmo or Gay Marriage?

This week, the Burlington Parks & Recreation Commission unanimously voted down a proposal to build an 18-hole disc golf course at Leddy Park in the city's New North End.

As with any hotly debated topic, it takes more than a single vote to keep a good controversy down.

As readers of "Fair Game" know, this has been a controversial issue in Burlington and one I've poked fun at, given the intense opposition and emotional outbursts at public hearings — largely outbursts by opponents. Same-sex marriage had an easier, and less emotional, go-round as public policy than disc golf has. Only in Vermont.

In fact, given the debate in yesterday's U.S. Senate, I could see Guantanamo Bay being closed down before a disc golf course is ever sited in Burlington. And with good reason: Disc golf is certainly a security threat. Especially if you're a tree or woodland creature, or someone strolling peaceably through the woods, according to opponents.

But I digress. There really are serious issues at play here.

The 18-hole course was shot down at the commission's Tuesday night meeting, which was attended by about 60 people — almost all of them opposed to disc golf of any type in Leddy Park. Before the meeting, both Parks & Recreation Director Wayne Gross and Mayor Bob Kiss sent letters to the commission urging it to reject the 18-hole proposal.

A year ago, Gross and the five-member commission gave the B'Town Disc Golf Club permission to clear trees from part of the forested area at Leddy Park. Neighbors immediately objected to the plan, claiming it would impair a "natural area" and pose a safety hazard to other people at the park, among other problems.

But on Tuesday night the commission apologized for rushing headlong into the process and reversed course after hearing from the public.

However, after rebuffing the 18-hole course, Parks & Rec Commissioner Barbara Nolfi introduced a separate motion that kept open the possibility of a nine-hole course in one small section of the park, generally described as north of the playing fields and west of the parking lot. That motion passed by a 4-1 vote.

Nolfi and others said that this does not give automatic approval to a course, but that disc golf supporters could work with the city's arborist, the county forester and a professional course designer and come back with a proposal.

The area of the park left available to this potential course doesn't offer much room, opponents claim, especially if you account for the buffer zones required to keep the disc golf course from interfering with existing walking paths, private homes and playing fields. Not to mention that poison ivy abounds in the woods.

Despite these restrictions, the president of B'Town Disc Golf said the park area delineated by the commission may be well suited for a nine-hole course.

The group recently suggested that a course designer, in consultation with the county forester, city arborist and other city parks staff, determine the best area in the park for a course. That was largely what was contained in a set of recommendations B'Town provided to the commission in recent weeks.

"The only change is that they specifically called for a nine-hole plan, where we had been advocating leaving that decision up to the course designer and appropriate environmental authorities," said Brendan Bush, president of the group.

"We are thankful that the majority of the Parks & Recreation Commission did their homework, studied the facts, saw through the misinformation, and concluded that it's possible for a disc golf course to exist in Leddy Park," added Bush.

Nearby residents, however, see the commission's decision differently. They see it as the death knell for disc golf, and a fresh opportunity to work with the city's parks officials to ensure existing forested areas and walking paths are kept intact.

"I am absolutely thrilled that the parks commissioners and Wayne Gross spent a lot of time doing research into just what disc golf was and how it would harm the woodlands at Leddy Park," said Carolyn Bates, a Ward 5 resident who opposed the plan from the start. "I believe that we as a group of 500 now will have a great working relationship with all of them for future uses at Leddy Park. We are already talking about additional positive uses."

Opponents believe the disc golf proponents should pack up their hard-plastic discs and chain baskets and seek some alternative site in Chittenden County — preferably on private land.

"I believe that the PRC is trying to delicately tell B'Town to find a new place for the course by saying they will entertain smaller proposals," said Mark Barlow, a New North End resident and founder of "The commission knows that  B'Town has said they want 18 holes, so by only offering nine they might dissuade the club from their efforts to build at Leddy."

Barlow also notes that the neighborhood opposition won't diminish with a nine-hole proposal.

"The commission knows that a new proposal will very likely be met with the same sort of opposition as the first proposal. I can't imagine that the [commission] would sign up for another round of controversy like the one they just went through," said Barlow. "I think they really hope that B'Town will search for a new, more appropriate, less controversial location."

Wishful thinking, but not likely according to Bush. He's convinced a disc golf course at Leddy Park will work and will prove less intrusive and damaging than critics claim.

"We are confident that a nine-hole course will prove to be so popular among Burlington residents that we'll soon be discussing plans to expand the course," he noted. "We look forward to working with the appropriate authorities to put together a plan for a nine-hole course. We'd also like to reiterate our openness to work with park neighbors and other concerned citizens to make sure that our new proposal adequately addresses their concerns."

Good luck with that.

Both sides are expected to air their views before the City Council's Parks & Culture subcommittee next week. The panel, chaired by Councilor Karen Paul (I-Ward 6) will meet May 27 at 5 p.m. in City Hall. Also serving on the committee are Councilors Paul Decelles (R-Ward 7) and Mary Kehoe (D-Ward 6).

"Same-sex marriage had an easier, and less emotional, go-round as public policy than disc golf has. Only in Vermont."

Yeah, gay marriage was a breeze.... Oh, I get it, "Vermont's Alternative Weekly" needs a blog and you threw a few words together. Nevermind.

Why bother with a 9-hole course? Why not build a full course, just elsewhere? LIKE ON THE WATERFRONT. (to the geniuses who are suggesting the old landfill site in the Intervale... it's not yet safe to develop, very close to homes, and ONE folks have had ideas for developing a park there for a while.. get in line!)

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