Discontent leads to disc golf course reboot in Washougal

City hopes to open reconfigured, 9-hole disc golf course at Hartwood Park in June

A disc golf element sits inside Hartwood Park in Washougal on Jan. 27, 2022. The city of Washougal is working with a renowned disc golf course designer to create and install a new and improved disc golf course at Hartwood Park. The city hopes the course can open in June 2022.

Stuart Mullenberg couldn’t wait to check out the disc golf course at Washougal’s Hartwood Park when it opened in April 2021. Once he got there, however, he couldn’t wait to leave.

Mullenberg walked around for a bit but soon left, dissatisfied with what he considered a confusing layout and lack of safety precautions. To this day, he still hasn’t played a single round at the 18-hole course, which sits just a few miles from his house.

Mullenberg soon discovered his opinions on the course were shared by other local disc golf enthusiasts. The course also has drawn criticism from local residents who were tired of watching golfers accidentally throw discs into their backyards and listening to their loud and sometimes profane banter.

To fix the problems, city of Washougal officials decided to rip the course out and start over.

This time, the city is working with renowned disc golf course designer Avery Jenkins to create a new nine-hole course at Hartwood Park that they hope will be an improvement for disc golfers and the park’s neighbors.

“It feels like a fresh start since Avery got here,” Mullenberg said. “The stuff that should’ve happened the first go-around is happening now. I would describe it as a reboot — that’s the perfect way to put it. It’s like, ‘OK, we tried once. It didn’t go well. Let’s get a fresh start for everybody.’ We talked about where the compromises are with the neighbors, and I think we got some. It’s a better course for the neighbors and the golfers.”

The city is hoping to open the new course in June.

“It’s going to be a great experience to have a legitimate, really nice, fun, playable nine-hole disc golf course at Hartwood,” said Jenkins, who lives in Oklahoma. “It revitalizes and renovates that park in general, and is going to make it more of a draw.”

“Avery’s goal was to make a safe and great playing course for Washougal,” Washougal public works director Trevor Evers added. “He worked with the neighbors and the disc golf community to see what worked best for everyone.”

Mullenberg is much more optimistic about Jenkins’ layout than he was about the original design, which he labeled “a disaster.”

“It just wasn’t good. It was trying to be too much,” he said. “It was not done well. But I think we got lucky that it was so bad. It was demonstrably poorly done. The city didn’t know any better until everybody in the disc golf community came and said, ‘We know it doesn’t work for the neighbors and it doesn’t work for us, either. Here’s how you fix it — you have it professionally designed.'”

Wright took Mullenberg’s advice and reached out to DiscGolfPark, a Colorado-based course design company, and was eventually put in touch with Jenkins, who won the 2009 Disc Golf World Championships event and has designed 30 courses around the United States.

“I continue to perfect my craft,” said Jenkins, who works for Discmania, a Finland-based disc manufacturer, as well as DiscGolfPark, which is owned by Discmania. “I just surpassed 1,300 courses played in 21 countries and 49 states, and I like to learn from courses that I play — certain features that I want to incorporate and also some things to avoid when I’m designing. There’s not a more critical disc golf course designer out there anywhere in the world.”

Jenkins first suggested the Hartwood Park course should be nine holes “due to spacing,” according to Evers.

“Ultimately a nine-hole course was a better option to address homeowner concerns about the course while also taking into consideration existing wetlands and buffers,” Evers said. “The nine-hole course designed by Avery also goes further to accommodate multiple uses inside the park — walking trails, play structure, open space and disc golf — then the 18-hole course did.”

Jenkins also prioritized safety while designing the new course.

“The previous course played right next to the playground, and a slip or errant shot could really do some bad things,” he said. “I made sure that when I designed (the new layout), I was going to have all safety parameters and spacing and buffers in place so that nobody was going to get hit with a disc.”

Mullenberg said that the new course will be fun for casual and experienced players alike. He hopes to organize kids’ events at the course as soon as this summer.

“I can say that it is (a good course),” he said. “When you stop trying to bite off more than you can chew with the size of the space, all of a sudden you’re making a lot fewer compromises in safety, playability and the quality of the shots that you’re going to throw. The redesign took the course away from the neighbors’ property and made safer shots and shots that are more family friendly. It’s a more playable, fun and enjoyable course.”

After Jenkins sketched the new layout, city officials, council members, parks board members and disc golfers, including Mullenberg, walked around the park with some of the local residents to address their concerns.

“My sense is that real progress was made,” Mulllenberg said. “(The neighbors were in a) totally different mood (at the end of the conversation) than they were at the start, which was pretty contentious. I really think they saw we put a lot of care into the redesign. We’re taking care to answer their questions, address their valid concerns, make some compromises where we’re able. I think some minds were changed.”

The city hired Vancouver-based PBS Engineering and Environmental Inc. to conduct a mitigation plan, which recommended that the city plant at least 10 Oregon Oak trees and eight Douglas Fir trees within the park’s riparian habitat zones and install a split rail fence around the habitat perimeters.

The city is also removing prickly blackberry bushes, which threaten to swallow errantly-thrown discs and cause safety hazards, from the perimeter of the course.

“(Golfers are) looking for variety and variations, not the same monotonous throws of the same distances,” Mullenberg said. “I wanted to create something more than that. I recommended that they plant some more trees out there, and Michelle threw out 20 to 25 tree placements in certain choice areas that are going to dictate certain shots or shape those holes. And eliminating blackberries is going to provide a way better experience for the players. They were definitely overgrown in certain areas, and I did my best to avoid those areas and provide enough spacing so that people weren’t aren’t throwing (discs into them) all the time like they were in the previous design.”

The course will not impact the existing wetlands and their designated base buffers, according to the study.

“The strategy of the mitigation efforts is to increase the overall value of the riparian habitat given the conditions of the site,” Evers said. “(The study concluded that the) proposed project is not anticipated to have an impact on the functions of the existing riparian habitat, but the loss of emergent vegetation lawn areas can be successfully mitigated through the installation of native vegetation.”

Mullenberg joined the Washougal’s parks board in January at the request of mayor Rochelle Ramos, who learned about his involvement in the project.

“Stu was a big advocate for getting things going and pushing them through,” said Jenkins, who has known Mullenberg since 2014. “I indirectly got him involved with this by staying at his house (when I came to Washougal in September). When things got kind of rough and bumpy, he steered the ship and quieted a lot of concerns. He was the catalyst for all of this.

“And the cooperation of the city of Washougal and Michelle and her team has been great. There’s been a lot of red tape and hoops (to jump through), a lot more than most courses have to go through, but she’s been persistent. I’ve had very good communication with her, and it’s been a pleasure working with her throughout the project.”