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Off leash at the dog park

Separate section for small dogs among ideas for improvements

A Dalmatian sniffed at a terrier and a the German shepherd pups growled as they tackled each other and rolled through the wet grass at Luther Burbank Park's off-leash dog area Wednesday afternoon.

The frisky, four-legged fellows were among a few dozen canines with about the same number of human companions that braved the elements to meet with park staff and discuss possible park improvements. Rain poured down and even hail pelted the participants, but though they lost about half of the group over the course of the 45 minute meeting, a lot was accomplished, many said. "We've decisions to make and I want to make them as a group -- it's time to work together," said Mike Elde, park operations manager, as he faced the group, then teetered on one foot, trying to avoid falling over a large white dog that had decided to plop down directly behind him.

In addition to receiving input from the community, the meeting was an opportunity for park maintenance manager Keith Kerner to share his vision for the off-leash area of the park.

"Potentially, I see three things we need to do," Kerner said. "Clean up the mud area so your dogs don't go home muddy, move and correct the entrance so you can go in and out of the park without getting wet and muddy, and decide about the fence -- does it serve a purpose?" he asked. Kerner referred to a two-foot-tall wooden railing with chainlink between the rails, designed to provide a stop for thrown balls, but not necessarily contain the four-legged ballplayers and other pooches that easily hopped over the fence or frolicked through its many openings.

Although most who attended the meeting appreciate the current fence and would like to see it remain, there was a consensus that there needs to be a separate section for smaller dogs, who sometimes are threatened or frightened by the larger breeds.

"But, what we don't need is a 7-foot-tall fence that makes it into a doggie prison," said Island dog owner Randal Houtz.

The park needs to have a separate small dog section, said Karen Roberts, 45, who brings her medium-size wheaten terrier, Nicki, to the park on a daily basis.

"It could be kind of like a kiddy pool vs. the big pool," Roberts said. Roberts moved to the Island from the East Coast about six months ago. She and Nicki love the park.

"I don't know what I'd do without it," she said.

Susan Higgins, 51, brought her 3-year-old Lhasa apso, Bubba, to the meeting. Higgins, a 1971 graduate of Mercer Island High School, grew up on the Island. She and Bubba are daily park goers.

"Bubba loves the park, he thinks he owns it," she said. In addition to changing the location of the entrance to the dog area, which, she said, should be nearer to the trees and away from the kids and bicycles that move quickly down the path, Higgins would like to see a covered area added to the area.

"It would be nice to have somewhere for when it rains like this, or in the summer for shade," she said.

But it isn't only Islanders who make use of the park or attended the planning meeting. People came from Bellevue and Seattle, as well as other nearby cities.

Alex Hay, 31, of Factoria, enjoys spending time at the park with his loaner dog Abby, a 2-year-old, golden retriever. Hay has been taking care of Abby for a friend who recently moved to Hawaii. Abby will be moving there soon as well, but this week Hay is getting his own dog, Beau, one of Abby's 8-week-old cousins.

Hay, an engineer, left work early to attend the meeting, because, he said, it's important to be a part of the dog park's decision making process. "This meeting is a great idea, because there's a lot of people who use the park and a lot of mud and other maintenance problems that need to be taken care of," he said.

The park previously had some neglect and maintenance issues, but that's all in the past, Elde said.

Now, with funds available through the Luther Burbank Park levy, a new staff member has been hired who will work with Kerner, to keep up the off-leash area, Elde said.

Although the suggestions made at the meeting will be considered, no major changes to the park can be undertaken yet because park staff is waiting to hear the results of decisions that will be made at the City Council's yearly retreat, which takes place at the beginning of April. But, council members and park staff won't make all the decisions for the park, Elde said. "What we talk about today will give us ideas to work from and give us an idea the direction people want to go," he said.

Staff collected names and contact information from participants at Wednesday's meeting in the hope of developing a relationship that will be the start of an active group of park planning participants. Park staff will notify the group through e-mails and notices posted at the park of future meetings to occur within the next few months.

"We meet with the ball clubs to discuss and make plans for the ball areas," Elde said. "We need a dog group, with a common interest: Dogs." Sidebar: How to get involved For more information about the now-forming off-leash area dog owner group, contact Keith Kerner, parks maintenance manager, at 206-236-32779 or by e-mail at miparks@mercer-island.wa.us

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