Happy Tails: New off-leash area in Swope Park will join other doggie playgrounds

Kansas City will double its off-leash dog parks with the snip of a ribbon Saturday morning in Swope Park.

The off-leash park is east of the Lakeside Nature Center, which is at 4701 E. Gregory Boulevard. When it opens at 10 a.m., the number of dog parks will go from one to two. But dog enthusiasts can take heart. There are signs the city is beginning to catch up on the biggest national trend in park usage of the past 10 years.

Proposals are in the works for small dog parks in Ermine Case Jr. Park near Quality Hill and near Fifth and Locust streets in the River Market area. In the meantime, nearby cities in Jackson County offer some alternatives for those willing to drive a little.

Off-leash areas for dogs have been a fast-growing and much-demanded segment of park use in the past decade. A 2010 study by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land showed there were 569 off-leash dog parks in the nation’s 100 largest cities, which was a 34 percent increase over the previous five years. During the same period, parks overall increased only about 3 percent.

That study ranked Portland, Ore., with the highest number of dog parks per capita — 5.7 parks for every 100,000 people. Kansas City ranked much lower on the list — 83rd — with 0.2 parks for every 100,000.

The Swope Park dog park — a sloping, partially-forested area of four acres for large dogs and one acre with fewer trees for small breeds — is the first success in years of discussion between the city Parks Board, dog lovers and wary neighbors.

Dog owners got the ball rolling in 2007, when they requested that more park space be set aside for dogs to run free. Penn Valley Park, south of the Liberty Memorial, then had the only off-leash area in the city.

The city set about finding possible sites in every one of the six council districts, plus the downtown area. One controversial proposal for an off-leash area in Sunnyside Park eventually was rejected because residents in the Waldo neighborhood objected to it.

After numerous public hearings in 2009 and 2010, the city made its list final.

It was then up to dog park advocates to put proposals for development and funding through the Public Improvements Advisory Committee. The Swope Park off-leash area was financed with $205,331 in PIAC funds.

Two proposals for small dog parks are moving forward for the area around downtown.

The 5th and Locust site, near the Heart of America Bridge, would make use of about an acre of vacant land owned by the Missouri Department of Transportation. That proposal, which is in the beginning stages, would include some benches and a double-gated fence, said Mark Rowlands, director of the Downtown and River Market Community Improvement Districts.

The Case Park project will add a dog run to the hilly section in the northern part of the park, near Seventh Street and Pennsylvania, Rowlands said.

Dog parks are beneficial for both animals and people, say advocates. And the ones that have been built in other parts of the metro have been popular.

The Happy Tails Park in Lee’s Summit, for instance, has been routinely crowded enough that the city is planning a second off-leash area.

Although the city doesn’t have an official tally of visits, use of that four-acre park encircling a water tower is “off the charts,” said Steve Casey, park planner and landscape architect for the city.

“Sometimes you drive by and it’s full at 6:30 or 7 in the morning,” Casey said.

On nice weekends, the park could get a thousand visitors a day, he estimated.

The park is used so heavily that it’s necessary to close it down for one month every spring to rehabilitate the grass.

The city is looking at a five -acre tract of donated land south of Interstate 470 near Douglas Street for the next dog park. That would take some of the pressure off Happy Tails and provide for people on the northern and north-central part of town, he said.

Even with temperatures in the high 90s on a recent weekend, a small but steady stream of dogs and their people strolled around the little park’s walkway.

“I find it relaxing. I’ve always been a dog person,” said Dan Bilyeu, who sat on a park bench as his pug/beagle Porterhouse explored.

Bilyeu, of Lee’s Summit, said he’s gotten to know quite a few regulars at the park in the three-plus years he and his dogs have visited.

Dina Woody, of Lee’s Summit, can’t take all three of her dogs at once, so she usually visits two or three times each week. The dog park is a good way for her dogs to socialize, she said.

“It’s good to get them off the leash in a different space, with different smells,” she said. “It’s enjoyable for all of us to get out of the house.”

Dog parks in the area vary in size and features. Most are fenced and double-gated to prevent dogs from running out into the street. Some include dog drinking fountains and agility courses with ramps and tubes.

Here’s a quick rundown of dog parks in the area:

Swope Park (Opening Saturday)

• Swope Park has two areas — a 1-acre tract of mowed grass and a few trees and picnic benches for small dogs and across the street, four acres of gently sloping, part-forested land for large dogs. It will also have a doggie drinking fountain.

Penn Valley Park

• The off-leash dog park, at West 29th and Wyandotte streets, has two adjacent fenced areas to separate the large and small breeds. Drinking bowls are set out, and there are several plastic jugs of water from which they can be filled. The park is hilly, with a few trees.

Lee’s Summit Happy Tails Park

• This park, at 1251 S.E. Ranson Road, is fenced, double-gated and has segregated large- and small-dog areas and is adjacent to a children’s playground. It has an agility course and drinking fountain, and the terrain is mostly flat with few trees.

Users must have a Lee’s Summit dog license, which can be purchased for $10 regardless of residence.

Blue Springs Gregory O. Grounds Park

• At 1049 N.E. 20th St., the park has 2.7 acres with a segregated area for small dogs. The area includes open space and shade trees and a small pond for dog paddling. There’s also a human/canine water fountain and a dog wash station near the exit.

Independence Santa Fe Trail Park and Fairmount Park

•  Both Santa Fe Trail Park, 2900 S. Santa Fe Road, and Fairmount Park, 300 N. Home Ave., have two enclosures separating large and small breeds. The parks are mostly grass with a few large trees. Santa Fe Trail Park also has a drinking fountain.