Deed restrictions limiting uses on the historic farmland could shut down the top-ranked disc golf course in New Jersey. Voorhees officials await a ruling from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, while players are anxiously organizing.
By Matt Skoufalos | August 30, 2023
After a decade-plus of growth and development, one of the most popular disc golf courses in the world is facing the prospect of closure.
What’s more, the decision that determines its fate could establish a statewide precedent about the use of protected environmental spaces for activities like disc golf, a sport that has generally defined itself by ecological stewardship and limiting its impact on the natural world.
The course in question, Stafford Woods in Voorhees Township, was established in 2012 by local volunteers who’d been granted permission by the township to construct a course there on a trial basis, course designer Adam Harris said.
“We got rid of all the garbage, cleared out everything, and basically made it safe for other people to come on the property,” Harris said. “Baskets went in in the summer of 2012; they said they’d approve a back nine if people played. Within a year, we got approval.”
Thanks to work by Harris and the Friends of Stafford Woods disc golf group, a loosely federated array of local volunteers, the course expanded to 18 goals, and usage shot up — from fewer than 500 unique players in 2016 to more than 8,100 by the end of 2019, to some 35,000 in 2022.
According to the UDisc app, which tracks disc golf experiences by user data, Stafford Woods has been home to the top-rated disc golf course in New Jersey since 2016, and is currently ranked 39th of 14,000 courses globally.
The work that it’s taken to cultivate and tend the course numbers in the tens of thousands of man-hours that volunteers like Harris and a handful of others have provided through the years. Their efforts have lessened the burden of maintaining the township-owned property on the Voorhees Department of Public Works, and generally made the 42-acre course more habitable for visitors.
“It took a long time to get it cleared,” Harris said. “We had to mow the pasture and remove miles of barbed wire, old barrels, farm debris, you name it.”
Even after clearing the parcel to create the course, its upkeep is an ongoing labor of love among a group of committed locals who, almost to a person, describe time spent there as critical to their mental health.
Disc golfer Matt Walker of Laurel Springs said he’s dedicated at least 10 hours a week over the last four years to maintaining the course.
Rodney Francis of Moorestown, who helps oversee the inventory of lost-and-found discs at Stafford Woods, said he’s been a fixture there for the past eight years “because it’s great for the community.”
Dave Prue of Cherry Hill described the players there as his “second family.”
When he moved to New Jersey from Philadelphia, Andrew Katz bought a house in Voorhees to be closer to Stafford Woods. He said that volunteering on the course helped him lose weight, make friends, and find a social community that welcomed him in his sobriety.
“It’s a really special place filled with people who care about not only the land but the people who come here, whether we know them or not,” Katz said. “I’ve made four of my best friends in life here.”
These days, however, “none of us are sleeping,” Francis said.
That’s because a recent memo from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) ruled disc golf to be a prohibited use on the preserved land in which the course was established.
In 2004, Voorhees purchased 140 acres of land comprising the historic Stafford Farm, which traces its roots to George Washington’s personal bodyguard, John Stafford of Haddonfield. Funds used to acquire this property total $20.6 million, which came from the township itself, the NJDEP Green Acres fund, the Camden County Open Space, Recreation, Farmland, and Historic Preservation Trust Fund, and the nonprofit Trust for Public Land.
Yet of the $20.6 million spent to acquire the parcel, which covers just under 70 acres of farmland and 63 acres of wooded trails inclusive of the 42-acre disc golf course, the single most-critical dollar spent among them is the $1 nominally paid by the township to access funding for the purchase through the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Financing Program (NJEIFP).
Terms of the 2004 deed obligate Voorhees to a binding conservation restriction with NJDEP “for the exclusive purpose of assuring that the water quality/quantity and other Conservation Values of the EIFP Conservation Restriction Area will be conserved and maintained forever, and that uses of the EIFP Conservation Restriction Area that are inconsistent with these Conservation Values will be prevented or corrected.”
Today, NJEIFP is known as the New Jersey Water Bank, and its stated purpose is to offer “low-cost financing for the design, construction, and implementation of projects that help protect and improve water quality, and help ensure safe and adequate drinking water.”
But projects funded by EIFP dollars are still bound by the highly restrictive terms of those allocations, which effectively limit activity on preserved lands to permitted passive recreational uses — “walking, hiking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, birdwatching, nature observation, fishing and hunting,” as well as “non-manipulative scientific research,” canoeing and kayaking, and trail construction and maintenance.
Although disc golf isn’t expressly prohibited in the 2004 agreement, the deed does forbid active recreational activities, including “athletic fields, field games, court sports, group picnics, festivals, playgrounds, and cycling.” The question of whether disc golf qualifies as active or passive recreational use on protected land is one that NJDEP has taken up specifically in the case of Stafford Woods. For at least the time being, the agency has ruled against it.
According to e-mail communications obtained by Friends of Stafford Woods under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), in March, Jessica Patterson from the NJDEP Office of Transactions and Public Land Administration notified Voorhees Township Administrator Stephen Steglik that the disc golf course “is considered active recreation and therefore not permitted in the EIFP area (Block 199, Lot 5.03)
“Therefore, the course (including baskets, pavers and signage at each hole in addition to all of the staging, seating and storage material at the beginning of the course) must be removed and the property fully restored,” Patterson wrote.
In prior communications about Stafford Woods released under OPRA, Patterson responded to another inquiry that “disc golf is typically an allowable recreational use on GA [Green Acres] encumbered property.”
She also noted in that same e-mail, however, that if the property were acquired with EIFP funds (which it was), further restrictions on its use could follow.
Patterson’s research into the subject was prompted by complaints about the disc golfers that were filed with the agency by entrepreneur Bill Green, who in 2020 acquired the other 70-acre portion of the protected Stafford property, upon which he’s established a winery called Saddlehill.
Both Green and the Stafford Woods disc golfers described an increasingly negative series of interactions with one another involving trash disposal, trespassing, wildlife management, monopolizing use of public land, and other mutually perceived slights.
Since the NJDEP informed Voorhees that it must provide a plan to de-install the disc golf course, a petition to preserve it — with signatures numbering in the tens of thousands — has touched off a flame war against Saddlehill that Green said has resulted in slanderous statements and Google review-bombing of his business, which isn’t yet open to the public.
Although the two parties have become increasingly suspicious of one another’s motives throughout the dispute, both sides say they’re willing to come to the table to work out their differences.
“It is a public park,” Green said. “Let’s work on hours; joint usage.
“How about we just yield to each other?” he said. “It happens all the time on golf courses. Somebody needs to go through, why can’t they yield to other people?
“In Wissahickon Park,” where recreational uses from trail running to mountain biking to horseback riding occur simultaneously, “we yield to each other,” he said.
However, even if the two sides are able to work out their differences, the attention that questions about the disc golf course have raised about the agreements underpinning it must be resolved at the state level.
Voorhees Township Administrator Stephen Steglik said that he’s tried to be “as transparent as possible” with both the public and the Friends of Stafford Woods that “this wasn’t a township decision.”
“When it first happened, it took us by surprise, too,” Steglik said. “There hasn’t been any issues. We have a great relationship with disc golf.
However, Steglik said the township has a limited wherewithal to challenge the NJDEP ruling. Failure to comply means risking potential fines, a loss of future access to funding, or a protracted legal battle at taxpayer expense with no guarantee of a winning outcome.
Although NJDEP has not explicitly threatened any penalty for failing to comply with the NJDEP order, Voorhees has been obligated to develop a de-installation strategy and environmental remediation plan for the Stafford Woods course — albeit one without a set timeframe for action.
“It’s a pretty fluid situation,” Steglik said.
If the course does have to come down, Voorhees is committed to preserving its infrastructure for possible relocation to another park in South Jersey, Steglik said. There’s no such available land within Voorhees itself, he said, but Camden County Commissioner Jeff Nash believes other options may yet remain.
Camden County currently features a public disc golf course in New Brooklyn Park, Nash said, but added that “if the county course is not up to par, so to speak, then perhaps the county could make it one.
“It’s not a county issue per se, but we want to make sure the county offers a venue that is meeting the standards that some of the better disc golfers can use,” the commissioner said.
In the meantime, calls have flooded into the NJDEP offices, as elected officials, private citizens, and committed disc golfers weigh in with their feedback on the issue.
On Tuesday, NJDEP Press Office Director Larry Hajna told NJ Pen that the primary concern for the agency “is ensuring uses of the property in question are consistent with the underlying conservation easement.
“In an effort to be responsive to the extensive public feedback we have received, we will closely review the restoration plan and ongoing uses of the property, and will be in further communication with the Township,” Hajna wrote.
Short of a precedential ruling on the active or passive nature of disc golf, the 2004 deed to the property may yet offer one potential option for relief that could preserve the course.
A section of the document marked “Discretionary Consent” offers a mechanism whereby NJDEP could allow activities otherwise prohibited under terms of the agreement to occur on the parcel as long as they don’t violate the purposes of conservation restrictions and either “enhance or do not impair any Conservation Values” associated with the preserved space.
Activating that clause would require a written request from the township to NJDEP, which also potentially opens the door for a refusal, however.
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