Park Commission tables choice of leash-free parks

NEW ULM — The Park and Recreation Commission tabled a decision to designate leash free-park spaces in New Ulm.

This issue came before the commission at the request of the City Council. Less than a month ago on Jan. 16, the council voted to draft an ordinance that would require dogs and cats be leashed on all public property.

Prior to this ordinance change, it was legal for pets to be off leash in every New Ulm park, as well as downtown. The only part of New Ulm that required a leash for an animal was the bike trail.

The council decided that since the city has adopted stricter leash laws, a compromise should be made to allow up to three leash-free parks. The council requested the Park and Recreation Commission give recommendation for designating which parks should be leash-free.

Park and Recreation Director Tom Schmitz provided the commission with 12 potential park spaces that could be designated as additional off-leash dog areas.

The list of potential spaces included the Putting Green area on Valley Street; the Minnesota River flood control levy; South Market Park, a southward or northward expansion to the current Dog Park in German Park; the south side of lower Riverside Park, Minnecon Park, Wellners Island, Pfaender Park, North Broadway, Lakeside Village Park or the dormant soccer field near the art wall.

Despite the council’s unanimous vote to designate three parks leash-free, the park commission was reluctant to give a recommendation. Even though the current leash requirement has been in effect for less than a month, some of the commissioners felt it was unsafe to allow pets off leash in any park.

Schmitz suggested any designated off-leash park should be kept away from residences, trails and use areas of other parks. He favored an undeveloped park or natural area.

Commissioner Gene Slettedahl was against designating an off-leash park with the possible exception of Wellners Island. Slettedahl cited an incident two years ago in which he was injured while on the bike trail. A dog that was off leash, despite the trail always carrying a leash requirement, darted out in front of his bike causing a serious accident and injury.

“I think for the city to expose citizens to risks such as this, and who knows what other kind of risks might come about, is a mistake and I think could potentially be a serious mistake,” Slettedahl said. “From what I see, Wellners Island is the only place I feel I could support.”

Wellners Island is located on the north side of the Minnesota River. This park can only be accessed from the Nicollet County side near the Highway 14 & 15 interchange. Schmitz said that with the upcoming MnDOT improvements to this interchange, accessing the park could become easier in the future, but the park is undeveloped an prone to flooding.

Commissioner Leroy Flor, Jr., was also against leash-free parks. He believes without fencing it is difficult to keep the animals in the designated areas.

Michael Shaneman spoke on behalf of the Soccer Association, requesting the dormant soccer field not be used as a dog park. Shaneman said the Soccer Association was seeking additional fields and was considering using this park for its original intention.

Schmitz recommended the commission at least consider expanding the current dog park. He said the snow dump section of South German Park is not used for anything in the warm months and would offer a large off-leash area which could still be used to dump snow. Schmitz said the only issue was the additional fencing, which would cost additional money.

The Happy Tails Dog Park group has been fundraising to cover the cost of a modest expansion. Schmitz said at this time the group has not requested any additional designated off-leash parks.

He did note that Happy Tails was the organization responsible for promoting the leash law expansion. Last summer, representatives of the group requested a city-wide leash law be enacted for animal safety.

Since this was the initial discussion regarding off-leash parks, Commission Chair Toby Freier asked if the commissioners wish to table their decision until next month.

Commissioner Jim Bastian recommended it be tabled, which was agreed to by consensus.

RENU update

The Reinvest in New Ulm (RENU) projects are in need of subcommittees. Park and Recreation Director Tom Schmitz said that after the original local sales tax project passed in 2000, three subcommittees were established for the three major projects: The Civic Center, the Community Center and Vogel Fieldhouse.

Schmitz said that this time around, there are seven projects, and subcommittees will be needed for all. He suggested that a least one commissioner have an opportunity to serve on the projects.

Schmitz said in the near future, architects, engineers and designers would be hired to help, but community involvement would be necessary.

In related news, the city’s finance department suggested the sales tax bonds should be grouped together in the same package of sale as the general obligation bonds. New Ulm usually sells $3 million a year in general obligation bonds. Schmitz estimated RENU could get up to $7 million in sales tax bonds to initiate this summer.

A reimbursement resolution will come before the Park and Rec that is related to RENU. Once it is passed, sales tax revenue can be used to pay for work on the RENU projects.

Schmitz said during the March meeting he hopes to have a package for recommendation to the council regarding the first phase of RENU. Johnson Park is planned to be part of the first package, to ensure the park is ready in time for the 2020 Amateur Baseball Tournament.

Schmitz said there was opportunity for private partnerships with these projects. The Park and Rec and the City Council would be willing to accept donations for possible enhancements.

In other news, Recreation Program Supervisor Joey Schugel requested the commission recommend authorizing an application for a Neighborhood Health Connection grant for use in community-wide programming for the new Rec on the Go Mobile recreation program. The grant is for up to $10,000.

Schugel said the Rec on the Go program was a national trend. The program transports recreation programs to different locations throughout the city.

The commission unanimously voted to recommend the request.