By Logan Roddy, senior contributor
On the south end of town just across the interstate from the city’s recycling center sits a disc golf course, unused and unfinished.
Rocktown Disc Golf Club president Ed Steele said developing the course was about 90% complete when safety concerns arose about the course’s proximity to the nearby Harrisonburg Police Department’s training grounds.
“It’s so close you can just about taste it, but then it feels like it’s so far away you can’t even see it,” Steele said.
Besides needing two new tee pads, the course at Ramblewood Park just needs some general maintenance, including trimming overgrown limbs to make the fairways cleaner, and a little weeding and mowing to make their shapes recognizable.
But the Harrisonburg Department of Parks and Recreation deemed the training grounds, which sit just over the hill off Hillendale Road, to be a safety hazard. They consist of an obstacle course, a house where police can practice close quarters scenarios, as well as two shooting ranges: one for pistols and one for long range guns.
The police department owns the grounds, which are often rented out and used by other agencies, including the Rockingham County and Albemarle County sheriff’s departments.
This spring, the disc golf club rekindled conversations with the parks department. Steele walked the disc golf course at one point with a representative from the police department and the head of park maintenance.
“And as we’re walking, he said he didn’t have any problems with what we have out there, and somebody then asked if we knew where the shooting range was and almost on cue you could hear gunshots going off close to where we were,” Steele said.
City spokesman Mike Parks said that as it stands, they can’t reopen that portion of the park without first moving the training grounds.
“Now we do acknowledge in the master plan that it will require moving those training grounds, but that is something right now that there is no money budgeted for, not only is there no money budgeted for the moving of the grounds, but there is no money budgeted for the expansion of Ramblewood,” Parks said.
The biggest concern with the disputed section of Ramblewood isn’t about disc golf or bicycling, but with opening it up to the public.
“We certainly have some concerns with the idea of, maybe not the disc golfers because they know where the course is and they stick to it, but once we open up that park to that area, it’s open to any park-goer,” Parks said. “And now you’re not far from an area where police are shooting live weapons.”
He said it would also require finding a place in town to move all the law enforcement training, including the obstacle course, the house and the shooting ranges.
“It would be quite an endeavor,” Parks said. “At some point we hope to do so but it’s not on the table right now.”
Harrisonburg has three other disc golf courses in town. One is in Westover Park off West Market Street and one is at the University Park at James Madison University. A third nine-hole course opened at EMU in 2019.
Steele said in the past year, he’s noticed a significant uptick in players at Westover — both club and casual players — making this an ideal time to open another course.
The possibility of expanding Ramblewood Park became an issue in 2011 after the city’s Public Works department decided not to increase the footprint of the city’s landfill and join forces with Rockingham County’s landfill instead. As a result, the vacant land, which sits in a flood plain, went to the parks department, which held a meeting to create a master plan and invited several stakeholders to participate. Among those were the Rocktown Disc Golf Club and some members of the bicycling community.
“We already had softball and rectangular fields at the northern end, and it seemed a natural progression to take the rest of the land which extends down to Greendale Drive, since it’s kind of obsolete from an economic development standpoint,” Steele said.
The disc golfers and bicyclists got permission to construct some trails and 18 holes for a disc golf course that would run parallel to one another in the wooded area around the sharp curve of Ramblewood Road. It wasn’t until the fall of 2016 that the new director of Parks and Recreation, Luciana Santangelo, determined the safety risk of the nearby shooting ranges and halted the construction.
“I mean we put in hundreds upon hundreds of man hours that were recorded out there on a clipboard,” Steele said. “And we had it pretty much ready to go and it was pulled up from under our feet.”
Clarification: This article was updated to reflect that Harrisonburg has three disc golf courses, including a nine-hole course at EMU.
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