Plans for Marfa disk golf thrown off course

Junie Villarreal tosses a frisbee at the disc golf course in Marfa. Villarreal and a group of locals play disc golf together every Saturday, but recent disagreements on lease terms could jeopardize the future of the course. Photos by Maisie Crow

MARFA — City council last week approved a one year lease that would allow a disc golf nonprofit to continue the maintenance and use of a disc golf course on an otherwise empty city property, but few council members and disc golfers seemed satisfied with the final version of the document. The nonprofit, run by local disc golfers, is not planning to sign the approved lease, potentially jeopardizing the future of the course.

Disc golf is a straightforward game, where players toss plastic frisbees at station baskets from a tee pad, mostly following the rules and scoring of traditional golf. But for such a simple activity, the course and its players have repeatedly faced turmoil through its short history.

The course was first established in 2018, when then-city manager Terry Brechtel worked with a few disc golf enthusiasts to install disc golf baskets on a city property that was rife with illegal dumping. Volunteers cleaned up years of illegally dumped trash, trimmed foliage and donated equipment to get the course ready.

But once the course became operational, neighbors complained of illegal drinking, litter and errant frisbees that led players to trespass on their property. While disc golfers said most of the issues were from non-players partying and driving across the property, the course was off on the wrong foot.

In 2019, angered neighbors sent a petition against the course to council. It was then that Marfa resident Stephen Boelter stepped in, offering to meet with neighbors, repair relationships and keep the course a safe, non-disruptive place for Marfa locals to recreate.

Council voted to authorize a three-month trial lease in October 2019, where Boelter could operate the course, and he and neighbors would provide reports at the end of the term. The city also agreed to post signage on the land and the motion asked Boelter to put a porta-potty on the property. But none of that came to pass on either side. As coronavirus took hold, council energy went toward handling the public crisis.

Meanwhile, even without a lease, the course on North Austin Street, south of the Dixon Water Foundation, attracted local residents from young children to a man in his eighties, offering an outdoor recreation activity that grew even more as 2020’s pandemic pushed residents to enjoy outdoor, distanced activities.

Junie Villarreal began playing the sport seriously in 2019, after friends got him out on the course in Marfa. “To me, it’s definitely a plus to the community and it gives somebody something to do in a town that doesn’t really have much for anybody to do,” Villarreal said. He touted the exercise the sport gives. A fellow player even uses it as his physical therapy.

Villarreal said about a dozen players get together every Saturday morning at the park to play, before heading to Sul Ross’ course the following day. Beyond playing together, the group helped host a benefit fundraiser on the course for a local woman’s cancer treatment. “We also want to use it to benefit the community,” he said.

Wes Hambach of Alpine

Through 2020, Boelter wanted to work with the city’s Parks and Recreation Board to eventually turn the city property into an official park. While the board heard his proposal, they wanted to be assured that Boelter had first procured a lease before working to make it a city park. This led Boelter back to city council once more.

On Tuesday, a lease for the park was on the agenda. City Attorney Teresa Todd had consulted with the Texas Municipal League about insurance and liabilities and found that Marfa would need Boelter’s nonprofit to hold liability insurance in order to have a lease. The city also wanted the nonprofit to provide an on site port-a-potty on the city-owned land.

Boelter bristled against those terms in the meeting. He was unsure whether his nonprofit could afford insurance or a permanent port-a-potty. He claimed he had not agreed to provide a port-a-potty at all times, which council members disputed. City Attorney Todd found the agreement in minutes from that earlier meeting.

Mayor Manny Baeza in the meeting told Boelter, “When we first were in contact, we said we would give them a place to participate in disc golf, as long as this would not become another city park,” which Boelter then claimed was untrue.

“We are giving you the opportunity to go ahead and have [the course], but you need to agree with the lease agreement,” Mayor Pro Tem Irma Salgado told Boelter. “If you really want this to happen, you should at least start there and accept a lease agreement,” she said, before looking into whether the city and parks board wants to make it into a full-fledged park.

Councilmember Buck Johnston said Boelter was being disrespectful, questioning whether she would like the city to enter into a lease with him and asking for “an attitude adjustment” on his part.

City Attorney Todd said she would like to revise the lease further, correcting certain details and adding terms about how the lease could be terminated. But council moved forward to approve the lease as-is, while adding a small window to allow the park to get into compliance with having insurance and a port-a-potty, with Salgado, Johnston and Raul Lara voting for it, and Yoseff Ben-Yehuda and Eddie Pallarez voting against the lease.

Councilmember Lara said he thought the group would get into compliance, but so far, “it seems nothing has really been done. We need them to hold their end of the bargain up, and to respect their neighbors. I don’t know what the answer is. We’ll help [Boelter] but he needs to understand that it’s a good topic for the budget process, because nowadays, everything takes money.”

If the nonprofit chooses not to accept the lease, “It’ll probably need to go back on the agenda and council will need to decide if there will be disc golf there anymore,” said City Attorney Todd.

After the meeting, Boelter said he wanted a lease as a form of security. The group wants to make at least $5,000 in improvements to pour concrete tee pads, add signage for each hole, create a sign with the code of conduct and put up an informational kiosk. “That’s why I thought the approach was to discuss the lease again to have the security. If we raise money and add all this stuff, is the lease there?”

Ben-Yehuda had hoped to continue negotiating lease terms with Boelter and the organization, which was why he voted against the lease on Thursday. “Without that, I feel like the lease doesn’t serve both parties as best as it could.” This weekend, the council member joined Boelter and another local disc golfer, Coleman Morris-Goodrick, on the course to figure out how to move forward and hopefully save the course.

Boelter said he seemed to be a “little splinter,” causing agitation at the Tuesday council meeting. “I want to change the direction and stop wasting their time,” he said. Boelter and Morris-Goodrick are now planning to take swift action. They want to present a revised lease to council, collect signatures of support from the community – including the once-angry neighbors – and get the liability insurance and nonprofit documents in line to hand over to the city.

Parks and Recreation Board President Trey Gerfers said that working with the disc golf course has been complicated. “The best way to go about doing something like [creating a park] requires personal skills, diplomacy, patience and I would venture to say a lot of those characteristics have not been on open display when we’re dealing with this greenspace.”

Gerfers said the majority of the board, himself included, is “very interested” in turning the disc golf property into another park, but becoming a city park involves a lot of effort and time.

For now, those who use the disc golf course are okay with that. “We’re not adamant that it become a city park or that it become private. We’re adamant that it be a disc golf course,” Morris-Goodrick said. “We have the bandwidth to take care of it ourselves.” The group hopes to turn over a new lease proposal and documents to support it within a week.

“There’s always a lot of red tape it seems like, but we don’t want it taken away from us,” Villarreal said. “I just want to play. I don’t want to get involved in the politics.”