Park's dog days may be numbered

Washougal property that has housed DOGPAW's off-leash area sold for $7.08 million to prominent commercial developer

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian neighborhood news coordinator

Published:

 
photoJust as she does most mornings, Bonnie Turnbow walks her dogs Zoe and Beijing at the Stevenson Off-Leash Dog Area in Washougal. The private land was recently sold to a commercial developer and park patrons worry the sale could mean an end to the open space.

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DOGPAW parks

• Ross Off-Leash Dog Recreation Area, Northeast Ross Street and 18th Avenue. Features: Waste disposal stations, hilly terrain, trail, separate small dog area.

• Dakota Memorial Dog Park at Pacific Community Park, Northeast 18th Street and 164th Avenue. Features: Water, rinse-off area, agility course, perimeter trail, separate small dog area.

• Lucky Memorial Dog Park, Northeast 149th Street and 101st Place, Brush Prairie. Features: Water, separate small dog area with trail, flat terrain.

• Kane Memorial Dog Park at Hockinson Meadows Community Park, 10910 N.E. 172nd Ave. Features: Open and forested areas, water, trail.

• Stevenson Off-Leash Area, 2801 Addy St., Washougal. Features: Separate small dog area, trail, water, agility logs.

For maps and more visit http://www.clarkdogpaw.org.

Most mornings, he lets the dogs out.

It's become a cherished part of David Clarke's daily routine — letting his two energetic pups loose in Washougal's seven-acre Stevenson Off-Leash Dog Area.

Clarke's been bringing his "fur children" to the undeveloped-private property-turned-makeshift park — complete with separate areas for large and small pooches and a doggy drinking fountain — for about as long as they've been alive. While 3-year-old Lakota and 2-year-old Chinook freely frolic with four-legged friends, the park's volunteer manager socializes with other dog people who have also made early morning outings a ritual.

"It's wonderful for the dogs. And the people make friends, too," Clarke said.

But he and others have lingering feelings the park's dog days may be numbered, especially now that the fenced property at 2801 Addy St. and surrounding land was purchased for $7.08 million from the Stevenson family by a prominent developer intent on seeing the town of nearly 15,000 transformed into a true "gateway to the Gorge."

Developer Wes Hickey said there are no plans at this time to close the off-leash area, opened in 2009 and maintained by Clark County's all-volunteer nonprofit DOGPAW (Dog Owners Group for Park Access in Washington) with help from the city of Washougal. He's not a dog owner, so he's never used the park.

Hickey said he'll create a master plan for the property and develop it in harmony with "the best interests of the community." Time will reveal those interests; now it's about a vision, not specifics.

Clarke said DOGPAW members are grateful to Hickey for letting them stay for now.

But he can't see why anyone would spend millions on a property to keep it grassy for long.

"Realistically, you don't spend the kind of money you spend on that piece of land without a plan for it," Clarke said.

Status quo, for now

DOGPAW President Cindy Franke said while everything is still status quo, there are serious concerns within the group that the early 2013 sale of about 16 acres, which includes the space that houses the dog park and the Bi-Mart across the street, is the first step toward the inevitable end of the group's only east county off-leash area.

D.M. Stevenson Ranch sold the land to East Village Investors, a limited liability corporation run by Hickey's Lone Wolf Investments, the company behind recent revitalization efforts in the city's downtown district, including the $14 million Washougal Town Square less than a mile from the off-leash area. Lone Wolf was named a 2013 Business of the Year by the Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce.

DOGPAW and the city have spent thousands to clean up and oversee the dog park, which was once overgrown with wild blackberries and littered with trash. The group also maintains four other off-leash areas and has identified a handful of other county sites it would like to grow into eventually.

"We were surprised and a little disappointed when (Stevenson) was sold," Franke said.

Now, she said they are hunkering down and working to build their membership back up after a few years of attrition. DOGPAW had 790-or-so members about four years ago, but Franke said internal strife and dwindling outreach efforts partly led to the number dropping by more than half since that time.

And fewer dues-paying members -- $15 a year for individuals, $25 for families -- means less money for the group to spend on parks. Based on its efforts since forming in 2005, it costs DOGPAW more than $16,000 to build and maintain an off-leash area in the first year. In 2012, DOGPAW's yearly expenses were $28,472, but revenue from donations and dues lagged behind by about $6,000, according to the group's March meeting minutes.

A 'devastating' loss

Since it opened, the city has paid $1 a month to lease the Stevenson property, one block north of Highway 14. Washougal, in turn, allows DOGPAW to use the land.

“It’s one of our better-used parks now in the system,” said Suzanne Grover, facilities manager for Washougal’s Public Works department. “There’s almost always someone in the park.”

The nominal rent agreement has continued since Hickey’s company bought the space, but Grover said the city did discuss with the new land owner the possibility of Washougal beginning to pay the property taxes, which would mean thousands of dollars more a year that Grover said isn’t in the budget. Hickey said it would be great if the city could cover the taxes, but his company hasn’t pursued that idea since the initial conversation.

“I’m not sure we’d be able to afford that,” Grover said. “That might be a deal-breaker for us. I hope not.

“It would be so devastating if we lost that property because everybody loves it.”

Most dogs need space

There are around 78.2 million dogs owned in the United States, with 46 percent of homes having at least one canine companion, according to The Humane Society of the United States.

And for most dogs — especially those bred to be hunters or herders — exercise is vital for their well-being. Those with few opportunities for outdoor play can develop health problems, both behavioral and physical.

Animal advocate ASPCA, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said daily exercise helps timid dogs build trust, hyper dogs calm down and restless dogs sleep sounder. Dog-friendly parks provide owners a space more suitable than the average backyard to let social animals indulge their natural instincts to run, scratch and sniff with others of their kind.

"Some pet parents make the mistake of assuming that if a dog has access to a yard, she's getting exercise," ASPCA advises on its website. "But your dog doesn't run laps by herself in your yard — or do much of anything besides waiting for you to come outside or let her back inside."

The benefits of having a place in the east county community for dogs to be dogs is exactly why DOGPAW leaders hope their Stevenson park will remain open until they can either find a replacement space or work out a deal to perhaps use only a small swath of the property.

Though Hickey does believe in the importance of open space in a city, even one ripe for development like Washougal, the businessman believes it's best for city parks to be community-owned -- paid for by taxes through a local government -- not existing on private property.

"It's kind of hard to rely on private land owners in perpetuity," Hickey said.

Stover E. Harger III: 360-735-4530; http://twitter.com/col_hoods; stover.harger@columbian.com