Area Pools Might Need To Meet New ADA Standards

OCEAN CITY — State officials announced last week hundreds of pools and spas in the resort area could be forced to comply with rigorous new Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards or run the risk of not getting their required permits issued by state and local health departments.

The state’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) last week sent out a memorandum to public swimming pool and spa owners and operators in Worcester County detailing the requirements for compliance with the new 2010 ADA standards for accessible design.

In September 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice revised ADA regulations for public pools and spas with a compliance date set for March 1, 2012.

The regulations set new minimum requirements for pools and spas to be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. The new standards apply to existing as well as newly constructed pools and spas and there are no grandfather provisions for existing facilities. Depending on the size and level of use for a pool or spa, the new regulations could require significant changes, including the installation of lifts, sloped entries, ADA-compliant stairs or transfer systems, for example.

Compliance with the new ADA requirements will hinge on a variety of factors, most notably the public or non-public use of the facility. According to the DHMH memo, “pools that are operated by homeowner’s associations, apartment complexes or condominium associations may be required to comply if they are places of public accommodation, for example, if the pool or spa is available for rental or for non-resident use.”

That section is certainly subject to interpretation, particularly in a resort area such as Ocean City with countless pools and spas in a wide variety of venues, public, semi-public and non-public. As a rule of thumb, if a pool in the area requires an annual operation certificate or a construction permit from the state and county health departments, it will likely need to comply with the new regulations, according to Dr. Cliff Mitchell of DHMH.

“Unfortunately, there is not a blanket answer,” he said. “We want to be clear that for our purposes, the regulations specify for pools and spas that we regulate, those that we issue operating certificates or construction certificates for, will have to be in compliance with the federal, state and local regulations. Even if we don’t regulate them to begin with, they still might have to be in compliance.”

Each year, the hundreds of pools and spas in Ocean City and across Worcester are issued permits by the state and local health departments. In most cases, strict ADA compliance tests will be applied to those pools and spas before the certificates will be issued.

“If a pool or spa is regulated by us, if it is a public or semi-public facility, it will likely have to be brought into compliance,” said Mitchell. “The ADA regulations include a complex set of tests and each pool and spa will have to be put to the test to see if they need to be brought into compliance.”

Mitchell said this week the public versus non-public issue will be difficult to determine in many cases.

“Hotel pools will certainly have to comply with the ADA regulations, as will hotel-style condos where the units are routinely rented,” he said. “Essentially, this applies to any pool considered to be publicly accessible. Public access is determined by whether or not the pool is open by invitation to members of the public. If it is open only to the people who live there, it might not have to comply.”

Because of its resort nature and the seemingly endless number of pools and spas, Ocean City could be a test case of sorts for the new regulations.

“It’s certainly a unique area and we anticipate a lot of questions about this,” he said. “In Ocean City, for example, you could have five pools in a one-block area and each could have slightly different regulations applied to them. There are going to be some matters of interpretation.”

The DHMH has a significant amount of information about the new ADA requirements on its website and is hosting a series of public information sessions around the state early next year. For example, a public information session is scheduled for Jan. 10 at the Ocean Pines Library from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In the meantime, Mitchell is urging pool owners and operators to do a little homework of their own to see if they are required to meet the new ADA standards.

“We’re trying to provide guidance for people, but it’s a complicated law and we certainly recommend they consult with their own management or attorney if they are not sure,” he said. “In many cases, it’s really going to hinge on an interpretation of the standards. We certainly want to be clear with people on this.”

While the new regulations come with a March 1, 2012 compliance date, DHMH officials acknowledge there could be considerable time, effort and expense involved to meet the new standards.

“We understand there is going to be a lot of questions, questions about financing, for example, because it might not be a simple undertaking,” he said. “As long as people can show they have a plan in place to bring their pool or spa into compliance, we’ll most likely extend the deadline to March 2013 and issue their certificates.”