St. Paul dog owners straining at the leash

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Minnesota boasts at least 40 official dog parks. Among cities, Minneapolis and Eden Prairie host the highest number of parks, with five and six respectively. In the city of St. Paul, there are an estimated 40,000 households with dogs, surpassing the 31,000 households with children. Yet the city of St. Paul has only one official dog park—at the intersection of Arlington Avenue and Arkwright Street in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood. Since its opening in 2000, Arlington/Arkwright park usage has dramatically increased, and it’s estimated that over 1,000 dog owners use the park each week.

The St. Paul off-leash task force meets on the fourth Thursday of each month. For more information, contact Eric Thompson (eric.thompson@ci.stpaul.mn.us).

To get involved in advocacy for dog parks, contact Jan Carr (jan@carrcreatives.com).


St. Paul dog owner Jan Carr has conducted considerable personal research on the subject of dog parks. “What you’ll find,” says Carr, “is that some communities are dog park friendly, others not. For example, in South St. Paul, 50 to 60 acres of an old landfill area are being turned into a city park. The [local parks] director, Christopher Esser decided on his own that the first amenity should be a dog park. There are a lot of people in South St. Paul that have dogs.”

In January of this year, a range of issues with the Arlington/Arkwright park gave rise to the creation of an off-leash task force. The group includes representatives from each St. Paul ward, as well as Eric Thompson, security manager for St. Paul Parks and Recreation. Thompson created the task force to address growing concerns about the use of the park.

“Really, this task force has two functions,” says Thompson. “To create and put a five-year plan in place for on-going sustainability of the Arlington/Arkwright off-leash park, and to help identify where additional parks can go and what they will look like.”

Problems regarding the operation of the park have provoked complaints from neighbors. An Arlington/Arkwright neighbor has complained to Thompson about noise and parking issues on different occasions. “The dogs are barking at all hours of the day and night and disturbing my kids’ sleep at night and in the morning,” the neighbor wrote in an e-mail to Thompson. “The dog people park all up and down our street…which is already very busy and has no sidewalks. This makes it a very dangerous and upsetting situation since our kids have to walk in the street coming from the bus stop.”

Dog park users have complaints of their own. Dirt and leaves have built up by a section of the Arkwright street fence, potentially making it easier for dogs to jump over the fence. Some paths are difficult to walk on due to their steep angle and rough surface. In addition, some dog owners have complained about the park being overcrowded, especially on weekends. Having too many dogs in one place can impair the ability of owners to monitor their dogs vigilantly and can lead to fighting among the dogs. Users argue that the park’s overuse is testament to the great need for additional off-leash sites in St. Paul.

Last summer, based on growing issues and complaints regarding the Arlington/Arkwright park, Thompson met with representatives from a local group called Off Leash Advocates. He asked group members to take on a more structured advisory role. According to Off Leash Advocates president Lis Cappiello, “We formalized because there needed to be a group to deal with different issues with the park, to organize park clean-ups [and] maintenance, [to] work with neighborhood issues and to advocate for more dog parks.”

Thompson notes that other park programs have inspired similar advocacy groups. “The Department of Parks and Recreation is very supportive of off-leash dog activity…[Dog parks provide] an opportunity for people to socialize, gather in a park space, exercise, and interact with neighbors.”

There are two main types of dog parks, says Cappiello. “Some residents want a small local park, near their home for quick use every day. Others want a larger park, a destination park with more acreage and space to run.” Her feeling is that both types of parks are needed to adequately deal with the community needs.

A key issue, and a controversial one, is whether or not to charge a usage fee to help fund the management and improvement of the parks. Based on her research, Jan Carr estimates that 90% of dog parks countrywide charge usage fees. St. Paul’s Eric Thompson, however, has reservations about charging usage fees. “Not everybody can afford to pay a fee. Will there be sliding fee scales? We have to consider everyone’s viewpoint.”

The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board has charged annual permit fees since the opening of the city’s first off-leash dog area in 2001. Minneapolis residents currently pay $35 for a resident’s first dog and $25 for each additional dog. Park users not residing in Minneapolis pay $60 for a first dog and $35 for each additional dog. Thus far, the Minneapolis fees have not sparked significant controversy.

According to Dawn Sommers, public information manager for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the initial work of a community advisory committee was crucial. “We went through the citizen advisory function [and involved] a lot of dog owners. There were open houses, media reports, and news releases. Fees were part of the discussions, so there were no surprises.”

Cappiello is against usage fees, but believes they are unavoidable. “If we do have to pay a fee,” she says, “I’d like to see more amenities such as double gates, good fencing, biodegradable bags, picnic tables, and even restroom facilities. But [I’d prefer] the parks to be low maintenance in order to keep them free.” If fees are to be assessed, she says she would like to see a sliding fee scale—or for fees to be waived in exchange for volunteer service.

Although the St. Paul task force has several issues to resolve, dog owners are optimistic that they will see at least plans for a new location within the next year. “In an ideal situation,” says Carr, “we will have off-leash areas separately fenced and away from residential areas…[although there are] not many locations that lend themselves to this.”

Betsy Mowry (betsy.mowry@hotmail.com) works as an arts administrator with COMPAS and the Arts & Culture Partnership of St. Paul.

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