Officials release alternate plans for dog park with ball field

Musich has issue with ‘shameful amount of money’ being spent on city’s dog park

By Gloria Lloyd

In response to residents’ concerns, Sunset Hills officials have released alternate plans for the city’s first dog park that incorporate a baseball field into the project’s third phase.

The dog park, which the city plans to pay for primarily through grants from the Municipal Park Grant Commission of St. Louis County, has spurred a petition against it from neighbors and opposition from Ward 2 Alderman Tom Musich. They contend that children play baseball on the field that occupies the proposed site at Eddie & Park Road, next to Truman Middle School.

The alternate plans, which substitute a practice baseball field for the playground and walking trails originally planned for the $374,000 third phase of the project, will have to be approved by the city’s Parks and Recreation Board before they replace the original third phase. The Board of Aldermen will take a final vote on the plans for the dog park around October.

Mayor Bill Nolan and Musich disagree about how much the site is used, with Nolan saying other aldermen have kept logs of their trips past the park site and have never seen children playing at the park beyond the 46 times a year in the spring that baseball teams book the field for practices.

Parks and Recreation Director Gerald Brown has told the board that the park is one of the least-used in the city.

Musich, who has a dog and lives across from Truman Middle School, disagrees and calls the park “the best park in Sunset.”

“This field, especially in the fall and spring, is used quite frequently, by large groups of kids playing soccer, baseball and pickup football. Families fly kites there,” he said. “I don’t want to see that type of activity lost in place of a dog park.”

Instead, the dog park should be built in Minnie Ha Ha Park, which is in a flood plain, Musich said. Minnie Ha Ha Park currently has soccer fields.

Switching the dog park site to Minnie Ha Ha would kill the project, Nolan said, because the city received the grant funding in large part due to its agreement to share the dog park with Crestwood. The Eddie & Park site borders Crestwood, and Minnie Ha Ha does not.

“What they’re trying to do by this recommendation is kill the dog park,” Nolan said. “He would vote for it in Minnie Ha Ha? He voted for it where it is.”

Aldermen, including Musich, voted unanimously last September to approve a resolution seeking a grant to construct the dog park.

The vote to move forward with the grant application was not for a specific plan, but just to move forward with the grant application process, Musich said.

“It wasn’t a vote to go forward and put a shovel in the ground and start building,” he said. “It was for a grant application.”

At the time of the vote last year, no residents had approached Musich in opposition to the dog park, he noted.

He had not seen the plans or a written estimate of the costs, although Brown told board members at the meeting that the park would cost about $274,000.

Sunset Hills received a $220,000 grant to go toward the first phase, with the Sunset Hills Conservation Foundation pledging to raise the matching funds for the rest of the project’s funding. The foundation is a nonprofit organization that seeks to increase green space in the city,

To fund all three phases, which are estimated to cost about $783,000, the city will apply for further park grants.

Until plans are finalized for the third phase, city officials do not know how the addition of the alternate plans with the baseball field instead of the walking trails and playground would affect the cost of the project, Nolan said.

However, he believes the baseball field will cost less than the previous third-phase estimates.

Since more residents have learned about the dog park, Musich said he has received phone calls of support for his position against the dog park from multiple wards in the city, not just from neighbors of the site in the Courtyards of Sunset Hills.

But Nolan said he has also received many phone calls in support of the dog park.

Even if the location is changed, however, the $783,000 estimated cost of the project troubles Musich.

A committee formed in Clayton to study dog parks in the area in 2009 found that the cost to build dog parks in the St. Louis area ranged from $14,000 to $63,000. The study examined dog parks in Maplewood, Creve Coeur, Maryland Heights, University City and areas of the city of St. Louis.

Although the plans call for three phases, the second and third phases depend on how popular the $275,000 first phase — which includes the dog park itself — is with residents. The $118,000 second phase of the project calls for restrooms and a pergola. The city plans to again apply to the parks commission for county grant funding for the second and third phases.

“I have an issue with Sunset Hills accepting that shameful amount of money and spending it on a dog park,” Musich said. “And I have an issue with St. Louis County granting that shameful amount of money for a dog park.”

The Sunset Hills dog park will have an agility section, with obstacles that dogs can jump over, run through slides and run up tunnels, Nolan said. The first phase also includes paths, picnic tables, benches and fencing, on a scale not seen in other cities that have built dog parks.

“You can build an extremely cheap pen in which you can put dogs, but that’s not what a dog park is,” Nolan said. “This may very well be the nicest dog park in St. Louis County when we’re done.

“And it’s going to be built at no cost to the city of Crestwood or the city of Sunset Hills, so why shouldn’t we build the nicest dog park we can build?”

Funds for the park grants are collected from a countywide sales tax, and Nolan supports returning those dollars to Sunset Hills when he can, he added.

County taxes should only be spent from need, “not out of greed,” Musich said. “This tax money is not manna from heaven.”

Sunset Hills residents can take their dogs to Watson Trail Park or Laumeier Sculpture Park, which is a 105-acre county park and open-air museum in Sunset Hills, Musich noted. On its website, Laumeier states that one-fifth of its visitors bring their dogs.

Opponents to the dog park want to turn the dog park plans into a fight over “kids versus dogs,” Nolan said, but that misses a key social aspect that a dog park adds to a city.

“Dog parks are, interestingly enough, about a lot more than just dogs. It’s kind of a social circle among people who have dogs,” Nolan said. “They sit and talk on the benches. It’s a social use of that site, and the human interaction is just as important as the dogs’ interaction.”