A proposal to separate the off-leash dog area from the pathway through the Jim Uffelmann Memorial Park has been met with concern by off-leash dog advocates.

They're calling for all users of the multi-use pathway to come to the table to discuss the proposal.

Bike Cochrane president Ross Stirling and Paul Perrrault, chair of its active transportation committee, presented a proposal that would see a total of 7.63 acres fenced for off-leash dog park users adjacent to the pathway in order to improve safety along the multi-use pathway while continuing to allow dog owners extensive access to the river shore.

Also, it calls for a small section of new trail paved to connect the multi-use pathway plus a slight re-direction of the Great Trail, a cross-Canada system of greenways, waterways, and roadways.

The estimated cost of the project is $62,100. 

Town council has directed the administration to review this request and bring back recommendations for the council's consideration. But councillors also made it clear all user groups would need to be involved in the decision.

The project tops the list of many improvements being pursued by Bike Cochrane's active transportation committee. 

Perrrault says data indicates usage of this section of Bow River pathway by cyclists grew by 156 per cent between 2019-20 before the Jack Tennant Memorial Bridge opened. It's continued to escalate since then and says they anticipate even further pressure when the Greystone development starts to unfold.

Bike Cochrane says conflict with dogs is discouraging other user groups from this stretch of the town's pathway system, and there's no alternative path in the area to reach the Spray Lake Sawmills Family Sports Centre.

"This area is listed as a multi-use regional pathway and yet it is also designated as an off-leash dog park. Those two designations are incompatible," Perrault told council. "Bike Cochrane has reached out to many user groups in Cochrane who have simply decided that this pathway isn't safe for them and they've stopped using it.

"We've heard from running groups who have reduced turnout when they select a route that runs through this space. We've talked to seniors who won't use their mobility scooters through this area unless they have an extra cane for protection."

"My own young children won't bike in this area to go to swimming lessons in Spray Lakes because they feel intimidated on this pathway."

Perrrault says in their active transportation survey, more complaints are being received for this stretch of Cochrane's pathway system than any other single safety issue except major roads and highways.

He points to the town's 2018 Let's Talk Cochrane survey that saw similar concerns expressed. Ninety per cent of respondents believe off-leash parks should have clear boundaries, and 94 per cent believe the area should be fenced when located near roadways.

"The number of comments we're getting in our active transportation survey would confirm that a number of user groups in Cochrane are making the conscious choice that if the town won't make a multi-use pathway safer for all users, those users simply will choose not to use them."

He says if the town's current standards were followed, this park would not comply.

President Stirling believes no one would lose access to the area or riverfront if the proposal is approved.

"I have a dog and I love the dog park, and I have a son that participates in Cochrane Comets and rides his bike through there. I think both of those things can happen in a great way for everybody involved. There doesn't need to be a solution that is a loss and gain. I think we can make something that works pretty well there."

Perrault says they have had two formal meetings with one leader of the off-leash advocacy group. He says it's challenging to meet with the loose-knit, but large community.

"We have been trying to build stronger relationships with every user group who has a vested interest in safer multi-use pathways because as I said to council, every dollar we spend on pathways helps cyclists, walkers, runners, wheelchair users, people with mobility aids, and dog-walkers too."

Kelly Willisko, of the off-leash dog space advocacy group, says the initial response by the off-leash community to Monday night's presentation was shock and disappointment.

"I think what was most shocking was the verbiage that was used in the presentation that Bike Cochrane insinuated they'd engaged the stakeholders, and that really wasn't really the case."

She said many took offense that council didn't stand up for off-leash users, but says she understands it was being received for information, not a decision being made or a public hearing.

Willisko says she met with Bike Cochrane representatives on two occasions but did not have the opportunity to provide input.

"It was really disappointing because they had already created this presentation without any sort of collaboration, We weren't invited to the conversation to discuss the safety issues that they seem really concerned about. I was just shown what they thought was the best course of action, which it clearly isn't. It only satisfies their group and not the rest of the users of the Jim Uffelmann Park."

She says the off-leash users are a loose-knit group but have an ongoing positive relationship with town administration that often comes down to compromise. 

"The goal of our off-leash advocacy group is to engage all stakeholders and do it with respect and understand for each user group in different situations. The Jim Uffelmann Park is a multi-use park. We're not the only people there, and we know that."

"We still have this great space that we love to share and sadly Bike Cochrane doesn't feel the same way. They don't want to share with us. It's unfortunate."

She admits it will now be a little more challenging to come to the table without emotion but believes a compromise can be reached.

"We would really like to come to the table and come up with a solution that satisfies all user groups and educations everybody--from dog safety to cycling safety to running safety--so everybody in the park feels they're welcome to come and enjoy their stay."

She questions the validity of their data. She says pathway usage is up because of the pandemic, cyclists largely use the pathway seasonally as opposed to 365 days a year like dog owners, and the Hwy. 22 dog park was closed for an extended period of time because of the pipeline construction.

"The downside to that is it kind of skews their data. Now that the Hwy. 22 park is open again we've actually seen fewer people going down to the river because not everybody wants to get a wet muddy dog back into their vehicle to drive home."

She would like to see it become a topic for Let's Talk Cochrane to enable more people to engage on the issue.

The park was named in honour of Jim Uffelmann, who suffered a fatal injury while volunteering his time to fall trees for the public trail system in the Bragg Creek area.

Uffelmann was known as a strong advocate for off-leash parks in the community and Willisko says it wasn't uncommon for him to find him in the park with his dog Lulu two or three times a day.  

While Jim was also an avid cyclist, she says he was in favour of turning the entire park into a dog-only space.

"I wish he was here to help facilitate this conversation but sadly he isn't."

Bike Cochrane is hoping town council will give the funding greenlight in their spring adjustments. The organization says it is willing to pursue funding from other sources to cover any shortfallings if need be.

Among those supporting the initiative to improve safety along the pathway is Footstock and the Cochrane Rotary Club.

Completing projects without financial contributions from the town office isn't new to the organization. In the fall, it opened the $100,000 LaunchPad, the town's first bike park, without seeking funds from the town.