Public swimming pool federal mandate has some scrambling to comply

A looming deadline has owners and managers of public swimming pools scrambling to install mechanical chairlifts to comply with new federal guidelines meant to ensure pools are accessible to disabled swimmers.

But while some in Collier and south Lee counties are among those rushing to comply with the May deadline, others are already in compliance and have been for years.

Changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2010 said public pools — like those at hotels, community recreation centers and public parks — must be upgraded with chair lifts, essentially mini-cranes that move wheelchair users into the water. The lifts run between $3,500 to $6,500 and installation can double those costs. That means organizations could spend thousands of dollars on a piece of equipment to make upgrades that some owners and managers say may not get a lot of use.

The law doesn't affect private clubs or pools owned by neighborhood associations that aren't open to the public.

The original deadline was March 16, but confusion over the details and pool owners' insistence for more time caused the U.S. Department of Justice to extend the deadline until May 21.

That extension is good news for the Bellasera Hotel in Naples.

Brian Schomacker, the hotel's general manager, said the chairlift the hotel ordered is on back-order and a delivery date has not yet been set.

Schomacker may be waiting for his lift to arrive, but Sue Soldan, general manager of the Inn of Naples, said her lift has already been delivered and is currently in place.

The only problem: While the chair lift complied with the guidelines when she purchased it, a Justice Department clarification earlier this year may mean her portable lift is already out-of-date.

The Justice Department in January said the chairlifts must be bolted down. The declaration came as most hotels were buying portable lifts that don't require expensive installation and can be wheeled into storage until a guest needs it, said Kevin Maher of the American Hotels and Lodging Association.

Soldan said she decided to buy the portable chair instead of one that is bolted down because of the size of the facility.

"We don't have a whole lot of room," she said. "It's not because I want to move it from pool to pool. I only have one pool and I have limited space."

The brick pavers that line the pool deck also were a consideration when Soldan purchased the piece of equipment. Had she decided to buy a stationary chairlift, the hotel would have needed to remove the pavers and replace them with concrete.

The American Hotels and Lodging Association has asked the Justice Department to reconsider portable lifts and extend the deadline. Without more time, Maher said, some hotels may close their pools rather than risk lawsuits or fines.

But Schomacker said he isn't concerned his hotel will be considered noncompliant if the lift doesn't get there by May 21 since he ordered the lift well before the initial March 16 deadline.

Hotels aren't the only ones that need to upgrade the pools. The new law also applies to public aquatic centers like ones in Bonita Springs and Naples.

Mercedes Puente, the manager of the River Park Community Center, said the River Park pool has had a mechanical chairlift in it for years. The new pool — which is currently under construction and slated to open at the end of June — will also have a chairlift and a zero-depth entry to make it more accessible to disabled swimmers.

"I think it's important to have and give everyone access to get in," she said. "Everyone now has the accessibility to use the pools."

The pools at the Golden Gate Aquatic Center and at Sun-N-Fun Lagoon in Collier County already have mechanical chairlifts in them. The lift at the Immokalee Sports Complex is being replaced due to age and to meet new requirements, said Margie Hapke, a county spokeswoman.

Bonita Springs has a portable lift at its community pool, and Bill Wood, the pool supervisor, said it's probably been used about 15 times in the eight years they've had it.

Hapke said county estimates it will spend about $6,500 for the chairlifts it uses, while Soldan said she paid about $6,000 for the one at the Inn of Naples.

That's money, she said, that could've been spent elsewhere.

"It's not like it was cheap," she said. "I'm hopeful that people want to use it."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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