COLUMBIA — Doris Thompson visits Garth Nature Area at least once a week, walking the trails, picking seasonal wildflowers and allowing her daughter’s and granddaughters’ dog Precious to run around the area’s leash-free pet zone.
“This dog park is greatly needed,” Thompson said. “And we do need more parking.”
In response to an increased use of the nature area, specifically at the 3-acre dog park, the Columbia City Council approved a 22-space parking expansion project at its July 7 meeting. Mike Hood, the city’s Parks and Recreation director, said that use of the area has reached a point where visitors often leave their cars at the park’s entrance or along Garth Avenue when the parking lot is full.
The city estimates the project will cost $48,290. The money will come from Annual Roads and Parking Lot Improvement funds from the budgets for fiscal years 2008 and 2009 — $20,000 from 2008 funds and $28,290 from 2009 funds — that are available from a park sales tax.
Garth Nature Area comprises 52 acres of land that include gravel trails and a dog park. The parking lot, which services the entire nature area, has 20 parking spaces.
At one point on Wednesday night, during what Hood called the park’s peak hours, the existing lot had three open spots for cars, two of which were handicapped spaces. More than 15 dogs frollicked around a pond in the fenced-off, leash-free area near the parking lot.
Mike Hylton, who moved to Columbia in June, heard about the dog park from a colleague in his master’s program at MU. Hylton brings his two dogs, Charlie and Eli, to the park to play almost every day. He said he hasn’t had trouble with parking, but he has often been one of the last to find an open spot.
“Actually, I thought when I first came out here that there might be parking someplace else,” Hylton said. “It’s such a tiny lot.”
City officials acknowledge the popularity of the dog park and hope the parking expansion project will be under way soon.
Although money will help move the city’s plans forward, Mother Nature must fall in step with the project. Hood said weather has forced delays at many of the city’s other construction sites. The parking lot expansion at the nature area might face a similar problem.
This summer’s rain made the ground extremely wet, and the site for the parking project must be dry to begin excavation.
First, the topsoil must be stripped about a foot deep, said Mike Snyder, the city’s senior park planner. Nine-inch rock will be placed in the ground after that, then three-inch rock and finally one-inch surface rock.
“It’s a layered process to get down enough base where it won’t move on us,” Snyder said.
Snyder planned this project and Garth Nature Area with the city’s superintendent of park development, Steve Saitta. Saitta said planned construction will not restrict visitors’ access to the existing lot. And Snyder said he and Saitta had always planned to keep enough space between the area’s trails and existing lot for this expansion.
After the gravel is laid, a phase officials hope will begin in August, the city must wait until the 2009 fiscal year starts on Oct. 1 to weigh this project against other priorities. If weather is cooperative, the money is available and asphalt prices aren’t too steep, Park Services manager Mike Griggs said it would only take two days for the lot to be paved and ready for use. Even if the lot isn’t paved until next summer, when the site is once again at its driest, Griggs said nature area visitors would still be able to park on the settled gravel.
“We see that we need more parking,” Griggs said. “We see that it’s really popular. Without the park sales tax, we wouldn’t be able to do this.”