Disc golf gets the boot

City Council votes to close down Upper Park site after 19 years

For the first time in history, the City Council has forbidden a popular, long-standing activity in Bidwell Park. On Tuesday (Nov. 18), by a 4-3 vote, it told disc golfers, who for 19 years have been playing on a bluff off Highway 32, that they no longer can do so.

The decision put an end to a decade-long effort on the part of the golfers to get their bootleg courses in Upper Park officially sanctioned. In the end, a majority of the council—Mayor Andy Holcombe, Vice Mayor Ann Schwab, Mary Flynn and Tom Nickell—decided the site was inappropriate for that use and that, given current financial problems, the city couldn’t afford to build new courses there.

The discussion was part of council consideration of the Bidwell Park Master Management Plan and its associated environmental-impact report, both of which seemed almost an afterthought to the disc-golf issue. Once the public hearing ended, the council quickly approved the plan and EIR, by a vote of 5-0, with Schwab and Nickell disqualified because they lived within 500 feet of the park.

The two councilmembers then returned to participate in council discussion of the disc golf issue. City Attorney Lori Barker had determined they had no conflict in that regard. As it happened, their presence made the difference in the final vote.

Nearly 70 people spoke on the issue. They were about evenly divided between proponents and opponents. Nothing was said that hadn’t been said before in previous hearings before the council and the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission.

That commission had recommended Option A, one of four options included in the concept plan for the disc golf courses and an adjoining trailhead area, including restrooms and a small parking lot. Three of the options involved building either one or two new courses, while the fourth, Option D, called for restoring the site to its natural state.

Option A called for constructing two 18-hole courses: one short, one long. The BPPC also had recommended that all mitigation measures mentioned in the EIR be in place, that maintenance and operation be the responsibility of the golfers, and that periodic reviews of the condition of the site be done.

Disc-golf proponents, including several children, extolled a family-friendly, free outdoor activity at a gorgeous location that could be pursued in an environmentally sustainable way. Opponents decried the damage the sport caused to a sensitive site and argued that Upper Park should be preserved for such “passive” activities as hiking and mountain biking.

There was general agreement that the current courses have damaged the site, but as the golfers pointed out, that’s because the city has prohibited them from maintaining it. They pledged to take good care of it.

“Approval will give us the ability to manage and improve the courses,” said Gregg Payne, who designed and led in the creation of the current courses. “Otherwise we’ll be right back to where we were 10 years ago.”

One speaker, Bruce Norlie, argued that “if the opponents had existed many years ago, we wouldn’t have Sycamore Pool, Five-Mile and the golf course.” And several speakers noted that mountain biking and cars were allowed in Upper Park, both more intensive uses than disc golf.

But other speakers argued that Upper Park should be off-limits to additional intensive uses. “This is the crown jewel of Chico, but we don’t treat it that way,” John Merz, a member of the city Planning Commission, said.

There was a moment of levity when downtown businessman Alan Chamberlain approached the podium, boomed “Dudes!” and then asked, “Is there a more quintessentially Chico experience than to put a good buzz on and play Frisbee golf?”

In the end, the council voted in favor of Option D.

“This is not about disc golf,” said Schwab. “It’s about the location.”

Holcombe argued that, according to the new management plan, uses such as disc golf should be in the so-called Middle Park (the Horseshoe Lake/golf course/Five-Mile area), not Upper Park. He pledged to work to find such a site.

Nickell said he was “distressed that it’s taken so long,” but noted that the city simply didn’t have the money. He listed several sites in town where a course could be built, including city-owned land along Comanche Creek.

Councilman Scott Gruendl supported Option C, which called for a single advanced course, as a compromise. And Councilmen Larry Wahl and Steve Bertagna both supported the disc golfers.

“Right now the site is unmanaged,” said Bertagna, at his last council meeting after serving 12 years. “But the documents show it can be made viable.”

Wahl was visibly upset that the council was about to tell people they no longer could play their sport in the park. “Where are these thousands of people supposed to go?” he asked.

And Gruendl wondered how a prohibition on playing was going to be enforced. “I think we’re asking for a lot more trouble,” he said.

The council’s decision did not eliminate the trailhead project, but that won’t be implemented until funding is available.