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Off-leash dog park group appeals to NL parks board

NORTH LIBERTY– They just want to be thrown a bone.
A group of residents hoping to get an off-leash dog park visited the North Liberty Parks and Recreation Board meeting last Thursday, Sept. 3, to make another pitch for the park.
“Our primary goal is to be added to the city’s Parks Plan,” said dog park spokesperson Jake Villhauer, of North Liberty.
This is the second citizen-organized push for an off-leash dog park in North Liberty since 2009. The initial group lost momentum, but this summer, North Liberty Residents for a Dog Park organized to launch a new effort to get a dog park in North Liberty.
The group created an online petition and, within two months, garnered more than 700 signatures of those in favor of a dog park.
Along with the petition, they offered an online survey to give respondents a chance to give input about what they want to see in a dog park facility.
Villhauer shared some of the highlights of the survey responses.
“Of the respondents, 49 percent said they would use it several times a week,” said Villhauer. “Fifty-seven percent said the ideal size is six to 10 acres, and 117 of them said they would volunteer at the park.”
Volunteer help is also coming from members of JCdogPac, a nonprofit group established in 2002 that worked to bring Thornberry Dog Park, an 11-acre facility, and the three-acre Rita’s Ranch dog park to Iowa City.
Angela Pitkin, president of JCdogPac’s board of directors, offered information on Iowa City’s dog parks and how they got started. For Thornberry Park, Iowa City obtained a large chunk of land, and subsequently sold much of it for residential development, but set aside 11 acres for the dogs. JCdogPac volunteers then worked to raise money for amenities to finish the park: fences, shelters, waste disposal stations, benches, and other items.
“They do believe it is actually a draw for many residents in that area,” Pitkin said. JCdogPac volunteers also organized clean-up days for the park and initially staffed the park to make sure people and their pets had obtained the required user tags.
“Over time, the city took it over,” said Pitkin. “They keep all the tag sale money, and have found it is a good source of income for them. They make about $35,000 or more a year now, and that’s even with paying city staff to sit and check for tags.” User tags must be purchased for dogs to enter the parks, much like the pet licenses cities require for people who own pets within city limits. User tag fees pay for park maintenance, and the purchasing process requires dog owners to show proof of vaccinations, an important consideration when dogs come in contact with one another.
While North Liberty dog park advocates don’t have a detailed design in mind, they have asked if a viable location would be 10 acres of the 40-acre Centennial Park on the west side of town. With North Liberty’s average land price at around $30,000 per acre, purchasing land independently would be difficult, said group organizer Sara Langenberg. However, having a high-quality dog park can bring economic benefits, she added, particularly in that location.
“It’s right off Forevergreen Road, which is going to eventually extend all the way to (Interstate) 380. We know people use those online travel guides to find the nearest dog parks (when they travel). If you get a good review of your park and its amenities, they will come to your town to use the park. It’s going to bring people to North Liberty to spend money. It’s a revenue generator and a high return on your investment,” Langenberg said.
Other benefits accompany a dog park as well, noted resident Anna Wu.
She has used Thornberry Park in Iowa City, she said, and enjoys taking her children and dog there because there is a sidewalk where she can push a stroller with her children and still keep an eye on the dog. North Liberty should embrace the opportunity to offer similar opportunities to its residents, she said.
“We are a community, and we have parks for kids where people are talking to each other,” Wu said, “but there is a group of young people out there who don’t have kids but they have a dog. This would be a good way to get them involved in the community and talk to each other. It’s a great resource we could really utilize.”
Tracey Aubrecht, who lives on the west side of North Liberty, agreed.
“I travel to the Iowa City dog park when I have the chance. But when I’m walking my pet here, there aren’t even sidewalks along Penn street because the city won’t take over building sidewalks on undeveloped land. People are constantly walking their dogs down my street because there is no other place,” said Aubrecht. “When it comes to finding things to do, walking your dog by yourself is exercise, but it’s not social. People at dog parks are always very friendly. It’s going to be a good fit for all those people who don’t have children, or who are empty nesters. There’s a big hole here, and the need is more than you realize considering the construction we have and the demographic we have in the city.”
Langenberg asked the board if it was within their purview to direct city staff to help find a location for a dog park, and if it could be added to the comprehensive parks plan.
“We want to find out what the city can do to partner with us,” said Langenberg. “Can you designate 10 acres? Is it appropriate to ask the board to add it to the parks plan?”
While board members Dan Skemp, Jeff Kellbach, Scott Stahmer and Raquisha Harrington all expressed support for opening a dog park in North Liberty, Skemp said the parks and recreation department staff, city administration and the North Liberty City Council are due to schedule a joint meeting with the parks board to update the city’s eight-year-old Comprehensive Parks Plan. While he thought locating it at Centennial Park was a nice idea, the parks plan already designates much of its land for a large band shell, three full-size pavilions and a rock structure. “We need to sit down with staff and work with the overall plan,” Skemp said. He added that cost will be the biggest concern in building a dog park.
“We are struggling with that right now,” Skempt said. He suggested the citizens’ group consider writing grants to obtain funding, in addition to seeking donations from businesses and individuals. “That’s been very successful for us from tennis to trees; all sorts of money has come from grants.”
The city recently partnered with North Liberty Youth Baseball and Softball (NLYBS) to construct a new pavilion at Penn Meadows Park, with NLYBS pledging to raise half of its $500,000 cost. Recreation Department Director Shelly Simpson said since cost will be a factor in a dog park, similar fiscal partnerships– and ongoing communication with the citizens’ group– will be important to this project.
“We do have the joint meetings coming up, and that has to happen first,” said Simpson. “Once we meet with city council, (keeping in) communication with you guys is definitely key.”
Langenberg asked for clarification.
“So I can tell our 900 Facebook fans that we got a verbal support?” she asked.
Board members nodded in general consensus.
“Your input will be noted,” Skemp added. “I’m sure we’ll hear something back from staff soon.”