- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- A disc golfer at Center Chains in Waterbury Center
Weather conditions were ideal for a round of disc golf on a recent July afternoon as Ian MacKenzie of Winooski teed off at the first hole of the Center Chains disc golf course in Waterbury Center. As MacKenzie sailed his disc down the 285-foot fairway, it banked gently left, then landed in tall grass not far from the chain basket. MacKenzie's golfing partners, Shawn Connolly and Ben Chussid, commended him on a solid opening drive.
Because all three had played Center Chains before, they stopped to answer a reporter's questions about their experiences on the course.
"Disc golf was crazy during the pandemic," said Connolly, who occasionally drove from Shelburne to play the municipally owned, 18-hole course at Hope A. Davey Park. "There were so many people out here."
MacKenzie was aware of the chatter circulating in Vermont's disc golf community about conflicts between disc golfers and neighbors.
"Personally, I've never seen anyone going crazy on a disc golf course," he said.
"But you know it happens," Chussid noted.
"Leave it to a couple of assholes to ruin it for everybody," Connolly added.
As the threesome played on, Mac and Barb Douglas were just finishing their game at the 18th hole nearby. The retired couple from Riverside, Calif., recently drove across the U.S. playing disc golf courses along the way. Sporting a veteran's hat and a T-shirt that read "How to play disc golf: throw, swear, look for disc, repeat," Mac Douglas, 75, said he discovered Center Chains on UDisc, a popular disc golfing app.
Originally from Waterbury, the Douglases had also heard talk of rowdy and obnoxious disc golfers but suggested it was much ado about nothing.
"We've heard the rumors," Mac said. "I don't see how those rumors could hold true."
Few outdoor sports enjoy a more laid-back reputation than disc golf. Recreational players have been known to stock their disc golf bags with a six-pack of beer or a bag of weed to chill out on the back nine. But as the sport has become more popular in recent years, more than just drivers and putters are flying in Waterbury Center.
Some neighbors of Center Chains have complained about rude and inconsiderate disc golfers who let their dogs run loose, leave behind trash, consume alcohol in violation of park rules and urinate in public. As one woman who lives alongside the course commented on the Center Chains Facebook page, "You wouldn't believe the number of penises I've seen."
Meanwhile, disc golfers have aired their own grievances about neighbors who interrupt their games by deliberately walking across fairways during shots and stalk players with cameras. One removed all the course benches without town authorization.
Some of the attacks have gotten personal. In April, Ethan Latour, a former aide to Gov. Phil Scott and now deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Finance and Management, surreptitiously trolled Center Chains' critics as "malcontents" in a letter to Waterbury town officials, which he also sent to the Stowe Reporter. He wrote under the pseudonym "Walter Blind." A reporter later recognized Latour's phone number and outed him. "You got me," Latour told the Reporter's Tommy Gardner in an April 29 story.
Then, in May, Disc Golf Vermont owner Christopher Young was falsely accused of inviting to his Waterbury tournament a professional disc golfer who sports a white supremacist tattoo. The event was publicly condemned by the Waterbury Area Anti-Racism Coalition before the group was told it was misinformed; it later issued Young an apology. Young declined to comment on where the allegation originated.
So much for disc golf's chill vibe.
"Steady" Ed Headrick, inventor of the original Wham-O Frisbee, is credited with creating disc golf in the mid-1970s. He considered the sport fun, family friendly, inexpensive and relatively easy to learn. The object of the game is for players to toss a hard rubber disc at a target, usually a chain-metal basket, in as few shots as possible. The player with the lowest number of throws wins.
Even before the pandemic, participation in disc golf events was soaring. Over the last four years, membership in the Professional Disc Golf Association doubled and the number of PDGA-sanctioned events nearly tripled.
Then, as COVID-19's social-distancing requirements made close-contact sports untenable, disc golf exploded. In 2020, the PDGA saw an 84 percent increase in its membership, the largest in its history.
That growth has been comparable in Vermont. Young, who runs two leagues and organizes 95 percent of the state's tournaments, put together 18 of them this year. The largest, held at Smugglers' Notch Resort, attracted 260 competitors from as far away as Alaska. His smallest event enrolled 90 competitors.
"Five years ago, we weren't seeing that for any tournament," Young said. "Now, that's our low number."
The PDGA website lists 44 courses in Vermont, Center Chains being the most heavily trafficked. As Young explained, the reasons are obvious: The course is centrally located and easier to play than other more challenging ones, such as those at Smugglers' Notch, two of which are ranked in the top 10 in the world. Center Chains also offers scenic views and diverse terrain — and, importantly, it's free to play.
- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- Christopher Young on the Center Chains course
But Center Chains' rising popularity has come with significant growing pains. Tom Scribner lives with his girlfriend, Meg Baldor, on Guptil Road, on property that abuts the course.
Scribner has lived there since long before volunteers installed the first disc golf baskets in 2002, and he and his family often hike and snowshoe in the woods where the course was built. Though 90 percent of disc golfers are respectful and pleasant to him, Scribner said, "Just my presence is enough to piss some people off.
"They've taken it as theirs. They're like, 'You're on our turf!'" he added. "They don't understand that was my turf and my kids' turf before there ever was a disc basket out there."
Scribner said it's not uncommon during the summer for players to be "hooting and hollering until 10 o'clock at night." Though alcohol is prohibited in Hope Davey Park, Scribner said the rule is commonly flouted. "And the more people drink," he added, "the more obnoxious and bold they get."
Complaints about Center Chains aren't new. In July 2009, the Waterbury Record reported on a Waterbury Selectboard meeting in which several residents, including Carmel Kelley, complained that they were being "driven off the land" in the multiuse park. Others raised issues about soil erosion, tree damage and unleashed dogs. At the time, several holes were moved to address neighbors' concerns.
Whenever conflicts arose in years past, Scribner said, he tried to adopt a "live and let live" mentality. But many of the problems worsened significantly during the pandemic, he said. In May 2020, while walking through the woods, Scribner recalled, he was "accosted" by a disc golfer in his twenties who tore off his shirt and challenged him to a fight. Scribner reported the incident to the Vermont State Police.
Issues surrounding Center Chains came to a head at a November 16, 2020, Waterbury Selectboard meeting, when several neighbors complained about the management of the course and the behaviors of some disc golfers.
"It seems as though the notion of multiuse shared space has been lost," said Ally Shea, whose property abuts the 14th, 15th and 16th holes. "Unfortunately, I've had several really uncomfortable encounters with people using the course." Shea also described the problem of unleashed dogs running through her yard as "relentless."
Nat Fish, then a selectboard member, agreed.
"It's almost become something that's unsustainable in its current state. There are people who want to walk out there, there are people who want to jog out there, and there are people who want to chuck really, really hard discs of rubber," Fish said in a video recording of the November meeting. "We're in this position where everyone wants to use it, but it's become unfriendly to everyone."
But as Waterbury municipal manager William Shepeluk pointed out, consideration for other park users goes both ways.
"Being considerate of the people who are playing is part of the deal, too," he said. "If people are playing on the golf course, you shouldn't expect that you can walk across fairway No. 5 ... You've got to give, as well."
Indeed, representatives of the disc golf community say they've been unfairly castigated by a handful of neighbors who overlook all the good that Center Chains provides Waterbury. As Young noted, disc golfers at the course have raised $112,000 for Waterbury-area food shelves in the last decade through an annual Ice Bowl winter tournament. The vast majority of players, he added, are courteous, law-abiding and respectful of neighbors.
"We all know who they are and what they're doing," Young said about his critics. "They're trying to bash disc golf in whatever way, shape or form possible."
David Frothingham is a Waterbury resident and disc golf enthusiast who for years has helped maintain the course. Unlike other town assets, he said, Center Chains' upkeep is done almost entirely by volunteer labor.
Frothingham acknowledged that the pandemic brought many first-time users to Waterbury. While good for the local economy, this also created conflicts. Since then, however, he and other volunteers have regularly posted advisories on social media sites and spoken to course users in person, urging them to respect park rules and disc golf etiquette. These include refraining from loud music, alcohol and large groups; leaving the park by dusk; and staying off the course during mud season.
"We are being watched," Frothingham wrote in an April Facebook post, "and while the town is not against the course, continued misbehavior could be detrimental to the future of Center Chains."
As Frothingham noted in an interview, the free stickers available at the first hole that read "Save Center Chains" are only partly in jest.
- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- Nicholas Nadeau (center) at a Recreation Committee meeting
Nicholas Nadeau is Waterbury's director of parks and recreation, a position created just three years ago. As he explained, the town of 5,100 residents has "big-city assets with a small-town budget." As the department's sole year-round employee, Nadeau oversees a municipal swimming pool, lighted baseball and lacrosse fields, tennis courts, and eight parks, all on a budget of $90,000.
Nadeau acknowledged that both camps in the disc golf debate have valid concerns and it's not his aim to take sides. He suggested that the problems that have arisen are akin to those that also occur at the skate park in Hope Davey Park, where "a few bad apples ... overshadow the hundreds who use it appropriately."
After the November meeting, Nadeau noted, the six-member Waterbury Recreation Committee made recommendations, several of which have been implemented already. They included adding more portable toilets, installing silencers on some chain baskets to reduce noise, adopting a "pack-it-in, pack-it-out" policy to minimize trash, and eliminating some benches that promoted excessive congregating.
"That last recommendation went astray," Nadeau said. "One of the residents took that approval to heart and removed all the benches, including the memorial ones."
But while some neighbors have suggested turning Center Chains into a pay-to-play course — camp groups and tournaments already pay a modest user fee — Nadeau considers such a move impractical and undesirable.
Perhaps the single most important next step, he suggested, would be the creation of a nonprofit entity that can contract with the town to manage the course formally.
- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- Frank Spaulding
Frank Spaulding, who chairs the Waterbury Recreation Committee, agrees. Spaulding, who's also worked for the last 20 years as a construction manager for the Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation, said that if you want to find public-private partnerships that manage public lands effectively, "You don't need to look too far to see success."
He pointed to entities such as the Green Mountain Club, the Vermont Mountain Bike Association and the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers as models for managing Center Chains. Each, he noted, manages and maintains miles of trails on behalf of multiple users and activities.
"I think it would be unfair to this group [of disc golf volunteers] to paint them as disconnected from the town, because they're not," Spaulding said. In fact, he credits Center Chains' success thus far to their efforts.
But Spaulding was also unwilling to dismiss neighbors' concerns as unwarranted gripes by a small but vocal minority.
"I view that as unfair, too. The friction is a symptom. The friction is not the disease," he said. "The issue is that there are people who are feeling disconnected from town property."
Neighbors interviewed for this story rejected the idea that they're NIMBYs who are fundamentally opposed to disc golf. Shea, a physical education teacher in Waitsfield and Moretown, said she actually loves the course and sees it as a valuable town resource.
"I do Frisbee almost every year, including disc golf. That's my favorite unit to teach," she said in an interview. "I'm trying really hard to be like, 'Look, we come in peace! We just don't want you peeing on our lawn.'"
Disc Golfers Take Another Shot at a Burlington Course
The last time disc golf enthusiasts proposed installing a course in Burlington's Leddy Park, the concept cratered like a lead Frisbee. A public meeting, held in April 2009, to discuss the proposal drew more than 100 attendees, most of whom opposed the idea, citing concerns about excessive traffic, environmental damage and the dangers of fast-moving, hard-rubber discs. The issue even became a talking point during that year's mayoral debate and may have cost votes for independent Dan Smith, the lone candidate who supported the plan.
Fast-forward 12 years, and disc golfers finally may be able to bang some chains in the Queen City. On Monday, the City of Burlington held a public meeting to discuss plans to install a permanent nine-hole course in Schifilliti Park in the New North End. During the pandemic, the city erected a temporary course there, using buckets on stakes rather than metal baskets, which a permanent course would feature.
What's to prevent a repeat of the Leddy letdown? Cindi Wight, director of Burlington's Parks, Recreation & Waterfront Department, explained that the city's land steward thoroughly reviewed the site beforehand and found it to be far more suitable than Leddy, since there are fewer houses surrounding it.
Also, the proposed course, designed by Christopher Young at Disc Golf Vermont, would be located near two public schools, C.P. Smith Elementary School and Lyman C. Hunt Middle School, and adjacent to the Robert Miller Community and Recreation Center, reducing the likelihood of conflicts with neighbors and other recreational users.
According to Wight, survey results from disc golfers on the temporary course were overwhelmingly positive, with 94 percent reporting that they had fun. Presumably, the remaining 6 percent were still looking for their lost discs.