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Schools request removal of off-leash designation for Willoughby Park

The city will hold a virtual workshop Wednesday evening to gather feedback on how the park is used, and brainstorm a way forward.

Nearby schools want Willoughby Park’s designation as an off-leash park removed, but dog owners argue the change could be detrimental to the Woodlands community.

The City of St. Albert is holding a virtual workshop Wednesday, Jan. 19 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. to gather participant feedback and brainstorm potential changes for Willoughby Park’s off-leash designation. 

Neil M. Ross and Keenooshayo Public Elementary are neighbours to the park. Both schools and their respective parent council groups jointly put in an official request with the city to remove the off-leash designation from the park last spring. 

Donna Hinchey, St. Albert community recreation supervisor, said in an email that the request detailed concerns about “a history of shared-use conflicts” arising from the park’s proximity to areas where children play. 

“The specific concerns involve issues like interactions between children and dogs both on and off school property, the use of the boarded rink as a recess and physical education amenity for the students, and the presence of dog feces in play areas including the playgrounds, rink, and soccer field,” Hinchey said in the email. 

Paula Power, communications manager for St. Albert Public — which Keenooshayo is a part of — said another issue is a lack of delineation for the off-leash area. 

“It’s not fenced separately, so dogs would be running up to kids in the playground at recess,” Power said. “As you can imagine, depending on the dog or the child, that could be scary.”

Shanlyn Cunningham, a spokesperson for St. Albert Greater Catholic Schools, said Neil M. Ross school representatives are planning to attend the Jan. 19 session and hope to learn more at that time.

Judy Rusnak said she lives a block away from Willoughby Park, and visits the park twice a day with her dog. Rusnak said in her eyes, it would “definitely be a mistake” to remove the park’s off-leash designation.

“It would break my heart,” Rusnak said. “This is truly what makes this area in Woodlands a community … It brings us all together.”

In speaking to her fellow dog-park-goers, Rusnak said she has also heard from people who have relied on the connection the park brings to get through the pandemic. 

“Just the night before last, my friend said to me the park has saved her mental health throughout this whole ordeal,” Rusnak said.

In terms of the request from the schools, Rusnak said “kids come first,” sharing that her own children attended Neil M. Ross. In her experience, however, Rusnak said she’s only seen and heard of positive interactions in the park, aside from some park-goers who she said have been angry with dog owners for seemingly no reason. 

For example, Rusnak said one night a man she described as “aggressive” approached dog owners in the park and yelled at them to leash their dogs. 

Rusnak said she understands there are concerns about dog poop in the park, but said she hopes the actions of a few people won’t dictate the circumstances of everyone who uses the park. 

“If people are letting their aggressive dogs run the risk of harming the children, though, I’m all for [removing the designation],” Rusnak said.

Sandra Goble said she has lived beside Willoughby Park for the past six years. Like Rusnak, Goble said the park has been a “godsend” for both her and her dog. 

“It’s just so lovely to meet out there,” Goble said. “The dogs can play and run around while you get to know your community members really well.”

While Goble acknowledged there is dog poop in the park, she said it’s no different from other areas in the city that are frequented by dogs and their owners, such as the trails along the river. 

Last spring, her friend organized a community dog-poop pickup, where attendees encountered a small amount of dog poop and a large amount of litter while cleaning up the area, Goble said. 

Goble said she knows the dog community would be “very willing” to come up with a solution that doesn’t involve completely removing the off-leash designation, noting a possible solution could be having on-leash hours while school is in session. In her experience, most people go to the park during after-school hours anyway, Goble said. 

Like Power, Goble said the park needs better markers for where it begins and ends. 

“The boundaries of the park are not well indicated — we only know because we’ve looked it up,” Goble said, adding that three or four more signs could help.

Ultimately, Goble said finding solutions that work for everyone would “really boost the morale of the community.”

“With COVID-19, if this gets taken away from everybody who’s just trying to get outside and be social and safe, I think it’ll be detrimental to a lot of people’s mental health,” Goble said. 

Power said ultimately the schools would like to have the designation reviewed, and start a conversation. 

“The school would prefer it not [be] an off-leash area, but certainly changing the off-leash hours would be an improvement,” Power said. 

Coun. Natalie Joly said in a Facebook post Jan. 12 she has seen “a lot of interest” from residents about the proposal, noting administration still hasn’t formed a recommendation for council surrounding the change. 

“Like many residents, I rely on dog-friendly parks to keep my family healthy,” Joly said in the post, noting she frequents off-leash options at Terwillegar Park and Buena Vista Park. 

Joly encouraged residents to leave feedback on the city’s online Cultivate the Conversation page. 

“Every resident’s voice will matter to ensure our plans include consideration for families that want to walk with their dogs, as well as those who want to keep their distance,” Joly said in the post. “It’s a balance, but an exciting one!”

In addition to the virtual meeting, the city will open up an online survey from Feb. 14-27. After reviewing the survey, city administration will bring a recommendation for the off-leash status of Willoughby Park to city council. 

Those interested in registering for the Jan. 19 virtual workshop can sign up on the city’s website

Rachel Narvey

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