After a recent and very enjoyable round of golf at the Phoenix Golf Links (which was constructed atop a former landfill) in Columbus Ohio, I had several design related questions running through my golf-oriented mind.

I decided to contact a golf course architect who is currently designing just that, a golf course atop a former landfill. I contacted Mr. Paul Miller of Miller Golf Course Design, and he was kind enough to take some time to answer some questions about golf courses that are constructed atop former landfills.

A little about Mr. Miller himself. Paul Miller is the President of Paul Miller Design, Inc., a golf course architecture firm in Northfield, Minnesota.  Mr. Miller entered the profession of golf course architecture with a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Minnesota in 1987.  He has 31 years of experience in the golf course design, landscape architecture and golf course maintenance fields. Over the past 17 years he has successfully managed numerous golf course design and construction projects for all levels of private golf clubs and public golf facilities throughout the United States.  Prior to opening Paul Miller Design, Inc. in July of 2004, Paul was a partner at Gill Miller, Inc. At Gill Miller his design portfolio included The Legends Club and The Meadows at Mystic Lake, that were both named top ten new golf courses nationwide by Golf Digest magazine. Currently PMDI has golf course projects in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

How many courses have you designed or consulted on that were built atop landfills?

The firm I was with until 2004 had completed several landfill golf course projects prior to the Burnsville landfill project that I am currently working on:

Paul Miller Design has established a multi phase golf course implementation strategy for Waste Management at the Burnsville Sanitary Landfill where an 18 hole public golf course will be the end use product when landfill operations are completed.  The golf course at Burnsville Sanitary Landfill will be developed as the landfill cells are brought to final grade.  The development is proposed to take place in 4 major phases starting with a practice range and four golf holes.  The final phase will see the creation of an 18 hole, 6,900 yard golf course that takes advantage of the dramatic views into the surrounding river valley and Minneapolis skyline.  The golf course will have a distinct Scottish flavor with hummocky mounding, rugged sand and turf bunkers, waving grasses and native plantings that will enhance the unique golf experience that this “island in the sky” will offer to area golfers.

Is this something that will become more "commonplace" as land becomes more expensive?

Landfills tend to be municipal projects or partnerships where the golf course is a valued end use project.  The front-end regulations, construction costs and long time maintenance issues would offset the cheaper land.   I think landfill projects will continue to represent a specialized sector of the golf course market.  Landfills are generally located in highly populated areas with good access so the potential golf market at landfill sites is good.  Revitalizing the area around a landfill with a golf course as part of the development seems to work well.
Is landfill land cheaper, what I mean is, can the course developer get this land “on the cheap”?

The land is cheaper.  However there are long-term restrictions on the land that cloud the legal liabilities for the new owner.  I would envision development partnerships where the land would be leased or developed without taking responsibility for methane collection and environmental issues.

Assuming the developer buys this land, who remains responsible for what lies below?

My understanding is that regulations call for up to 30 years of responsibility for the after treatment of the landfill.  This is not something that developers would be able to provide in most cases.  There was some legislation enacted in 2002 that offers some protection from long-term liability issues.  Older landfills would possibly have less long-term legal issues but it invariably costs more for construction and maintenance on a landfill golf course.

Could one get the federal or state governments to provide money in exchange for building a golf course on a brownfield or superfund site?  

The history of most landfill golf course projects represents some involvement in the government in reclaiming the land as a viable commercial development.

What sorts of hardships are encountered when planning a course on top of a landfill area? (i.e. collapse, gasses, etc…)

Settling, methane collection / release, and ground water issues are the big three.  Newer landfill regulations with improved capping and methane collection reduce some of the problems that were inherited on older landfills that were not properly capped.  Generally the golf course features are built above the landfill and final landfill cap so that you have a minimum of 3’ – 5’ above the cap over the landfill.

 Are these types of layouts destined to be of the LINKS style? Can trees be planted or do the root structures cause instability?

Most trees exist in the upper couple of feet of the soil so its not impossible to plant trees on a landfill.  The nature of the starting terrain suggests more of a links layout with naturalized areas less impacted by settling or shifts in the terrain. In the mounded areas there could be 10 – 15 feet of fill, which can easily accommodate tree roots. There is remedial value in trees, particularly poplars, taking up some of the water, minimizing leachate issues and providing root structures that minimize erosion and potential cap exposure.  Since the majority of the settling happens in the first few years after closure a tree planting master plan will allow the trees to be planted at a time when the landfill is stable.

Is the EPA heavily involved in all facets of the construction? 

Landfills are highly regulated and various agencies on the federal, state and local levels review and approve the construction plans.  The agencies are most actively involved on the front end to ensure proper construction methods.  Site reviews during construction vary by locale and project requirements.

Is the landfill "capped" with concrete and then fill dirt added over the top of it?  

Landfill caps are designed based on the specific requirements of the remediation site.  Clay or geo-synthetic liners are frequently used as the landfill cap with the golf course built on top of the landfill cap.    

Are there limitations as to what types of heavy equipment can be used to shape the holes?

From a practical standpoint bulldozers are more manageable than earth scrapers.  Since the golf course is constructed entirely out of fill, placing of the fill is the largest component of the earth moving.  Heavier equipment would move the material in place to be shaped by bulldozers.  Like every construction job the amount of moisture in the soil impacts the use of heavy equipment.  Landfill operations are a large enough industry to have a strong track record of construction equipment that performs well on landfills.  Haul roads developed and used during landfill operations are the most stable access points for large equipment.

Are you familiar with Phoenix Golf Links in Columbus, Ohio? It was built on a former landfill.

I know of the golf course but I have not played it.  Landfills by definition are elevated so you have dramatic views into the surrounding area.  The Burnsville site has been described as “an island in the sky”.  You can get a sense of the golf course by being on the landfill in the early evening with a bit of a surreal mystical quality that you wouldn’t expect being on top of a landfill.  People love the views.

Again, thanks for answering a few simple design and construction questions about landfill golf courses. I would bet, that a lot more of these types of golf courses will be created in the future.

Golf Course architect Paul Miller.

Stop by and check out some of Paul’s current and past course designs at

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  1. I am lucky to live in Mr. Miller’s area and to have played nearly all of his designs. They are truly wonderful golf courses.
    The Ponds at Battle Creek is a 9-hole layout that will test the skills of the very best players. A friend who is a panelist fof GD states it is the toughest 9 hole course he has ever played. It could be one of the toughest of any 9’s most anywhere. Tough, in this case anyway, is still fair and lots of fun. Just don’t expect to play to your GHIN and be sure to bring plenty of golf balls.