Where the wild things aren’t

Several promising future dog park sites have fallen through

A seemingly simple quest to build an off-leash dog park somewhere — anywhere — in Camas-Washougal may not be as easy as many local dog lovers had hoped.

“I have not seen a solution, But there are about 50 of us who will stand behind any effort to get a dog park out here,” says Camas resident and dog owner Sunny Duncan. “We want to work this out.”

Like many other dog owners in the area, Duncan made good use of the now-closed Stevenson off-leash dog park in Washougal. She took her 2-year-old English sheepdog Tessa to the park nearly every day and was disappointed when the park closed at the end of April.

Now, Duncan takes Tessa on trail walks and to local parks for her exercise, but says it’s not the same without the off-leash, fenced-in park.

“It’s really hard. We come back from a walk and she’s not tired like she would be after just one hour at the park. She’s not getting the exercise she needs or the socialization,” Duncan says. “She loved the other dogs at the park and had a lot of friends there.”

The 6.4-acre off-leash dog park located in Washougal’s prime Town Center East Village area closed in late April, after owner Wes Hickey, of Lone Wolf Investments, gave ample notice that he planned to get the land ready for future development.

In fact, the park was originally set to close in November 2016, but the nonprofit group that maintains the park, Dog Owners Group for Park Access in Washington (DOGPAW), negotiated with Hickey to keep the park open a few more months while the group searched for another, more permanent location.

“Wes Hickey was very generous in allowing DOGPAW to continue using the land,” says Mark Watson, the nonprofit’s development director.

The closure left dog owners in Camas-Washougal without a dedicated dog park. DOGPAW has pursued several leads on parcels owned by the two cities and the Port of Camas-Washougal, but so far nothing has worked out, Watson says.

“I feel like we’ve exhausted every possibility,” Watson says, adding that city leaders have known for some time that the day might come when dog owners in Camas and Washougal would have to travel outside the area to exercise their dogs in an off-leash, fenced space.

“We’ve been saying this for two and a half years: When the Washougal park goes away, there is going to be a desperate need for a dog park in Camas-Washougal,” Watson says. “It’s not a surprise.”

With the Washougal park’s closure, DOGPAW now operates four off-leash parks in Clark County. The volunteer group started in 2001 when a small group of dog-lovers approached the Vancouver Parks and Recreation Department and asked that the city preserve land for the area’s first off-leash dog park.

The group’s first park, Ike Dog Park (formerly known as Ross Dog Park), located at 5167 N.E. 15th Ave., in Vancouver, opened in 2005.

Since then, DOGPAW has opened other parks throughout the county, including the Washougal park in 2010, the Dakota Dog Park in Northeast Vancouver and two parks in Brush Prairie.

DOGPAW members help fund the group’s mission of keeping off-leash dog parks open throughout Clark County and volunteers help build, maintain and manage the dog parks.Once a park is in place — typically on publicly owned land — DOGPAW maintains the space, helping with mowing, weed maintenance, grass replacement, waste management and other safety and cleanliness operations.

Many people are under the false impression that DOGPAW is funded by tax dollars and don’t seem to realize that if DOGPAW can’t keep enough paying members or gather enough volunteers, all of the off-leash parks in Clark County will be in danger of closing, Watson says.

Several sites tested, none approved

Opening a new off-leash dog park is becoming incredibly tough, thanks to state requirements for parking lots at dog parks and various environmental concerns at locations throughout Camas and Washougal, which tend to be sited on wetlands, near rivers or within floodplains, Watson says.

“Government bureaucracy has probably priced us out of ever building new parks,” Watson says.

DOGPAW’s leaders have looked at several sites in Camas and Washougal over the past two years, including the new Schmid Family Park, at 1407 N.E. 32nd St., in Washougal; a piece of land near the Grove Field airstrip at the Port of Camas-Washougal; and a site known as the Washougal River Greenway Boat Launch at 3010 N.E. Third Ave., in Camas.

Watson says each site had its benefits — the Camas site had a parking lot, the Schmid Family Park site had acres of undevelopable land, and the Port property was on a parcel that could never be used for anything that might impede an emergency aircraft landing.

But each site also had its drawbacks.

At the Grove Field airport site, costs for building the parking lot and permitting for stormwater drainage — costs Watson says were around $100,000 — proved too steep for a nonprofit that relies on dues-paying members and local fundraisers.

Still, says Camas City Administrator Pete Cappell, local leaders were willing to work with DOGPAW to help make the site work out.

“It would have been difficult for them to raise the money … but Camas, Washougal and the Port all offered to provide financial support to make it happen,” Cappell says.

In the end, though, DOGPAW’s leadership worried about investing any money or time in the Port site, since there was no guarantee that the Port wouldn’t someday need to use the land for something other than a dog park.

“They can’t own the site, so they run the risk of having the Port come back and want it for airport use,” Cappell explains.

Camas city leaders have tried to assist with DOGPAW’s quest to find another publicly owned parcel that might work as a dog park. In fact, the city spent $5,000 on an environmental analysis for the boat launch property.

In the technical memorandum submitted to the city in late March, analysts from BergerABAM found that converting the Third Avenue Camas parcel into a dog park would “not be compatible with the long-term obligations” the city has with the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office, which oversees the grant funding that allowed the city to use the land as a boat launch.

“In BergerABAM’s professional opinion, the proposed dog park … will negatively impact the existing park that was funded under the grant program,” the report’s authors state. “… the DOGPAW request for the off-leash dog park would disturb sensitive lands, convert over half of the site picnic areas for a fenced-in dog area and use all of the boat launch parking,”

In Washougal, at the Schmid Family Park site, other environmental hiccups shut down DOGPAW’s hopes of using the bottom, river-adjacent acreage as a dog park.

Because the land is in Washougal’s floodplain, concerns about dog feces getting into the nearby Washougal River, Watson explained. The DOGPAW development director, however, has issues with these types of concerns.

“People still bring their dogs down there and without a park, they’re less likely to pick up the waste,” Watson says.

Duncan, the Camas-area dog owner, agrees. She says she frequently sees dog owners ignoring the fact that their pet has left behind dog poop in parks and natural areas. In a dog park situation, Duncan says, there is an unspoken dog poo-policing system.

“At the dog park, everyone’s watching you. If they see someone hasn’t picked up, they might come up to them and ask if they need a bag, but it will get picked up,” Duncan says. “Outside of the park, there’s no reason for people to pick it up. The other day I must have picked up 10 other dogs’ poop on our walk.”

Washougal Mayor Sean Guard says city leaders would like to offer a dog park amenity to area residents, but that the city’s new Schmid Family Park probably isn’t the right spot. “Part of it is how we paid for the park, through conservation futures money,” Guard says. “And the (Schmid) family made the land available to the city to create a community park. I’m not so sure that (a dog park) would fall under what they’re looking for.”

Guard says it comes down to the best community use for the park.

“The short answer is that we would love to find something close to both communities for a dog park,” Guard says. “It’s an asset, but we need to find the right infrastructure … and have it be in a place where neighbors won’t get up at arms.”

The city of Washougal, Guard says, is currently in “a planning phase” with citizens groups to figure out the best use for Schmid Family Park. That group is expected to present ideas to city leaders in the fall.

Future of area dog park uncertain

Watson says he feels like DOGPAW has hit a brick wall when it comes to finding the right space for a fenced, off-leash dog park in Camas or Washougal.

“We don’t have any idea of what’s next,” he says. “We are now hoping that someone in the community might have five acres they would like to donate for a dog park.”

With a land donation, Watson says, DOGPAW could own the land and not have to worry about putting money and effort into a site that might someday go away. The idea would be to make the dog park a members-only site with a gated entry that only dues-paying members would be able to access.

Watson says DOGPAW needs to gather 2,600 members who each pay $25 a year to keep the current off-leash parks running. Having a private, members-only park might be a bigger draw for those who pay the $25 annual fee, he says.

Cappell, with the city of Camas, agrees that the situation seems to have hit a wall.

“At this point, with land that we (the city) have or own, it’s an unfortunate, but I think that we’ve exhausted our options,” Cappell says.

If there is a ray of light for a public piece of land to become Camas-Washougal’s off-leash dog park, Cappell says it’s probably going to be found on the Port site.

“I’m working with the Port and hoping to try and make the Grove Field site work,” Cappell says. “I still believe that’s the most viable option. We would provide some financial assistance because it clearly benefits our residents.”

Until they find an affordable solution for a new off-leash park in the Camas-Washougal area, Watson says DOGPAW’s leadership is probably going to concentrate more on fundraising, getting new members and volunteers and maintaining the four off-leash parks they do have.

“All of the great ideas haven’t worked out. To me, there are spots that should have worked, but didn’t for one reason or another,” Watson says. “We really don’t have any idea what’s next.”

For more information about DOGPAW and the group’s membership drives and fundraising efforts, visit http://clarkdogpaw.org, check the group’s Facebook site at www.facebook.com/pg/DOGPAWoffleashparks, or call 1-888-899-0025.