State Relaxes New Pool Regs

OCEAN CITY — Hundreds of pools and spas in the resort area and thousands more across the state facing mandatory new Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards got a little relief last week when the deadline for compliance was extended amid considerable confusion.

The state’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) late last year 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.

While March 1 has come and gone, DHMH officials have relaxed the hard and fast compliance date after considerable confusion and questions were raised by pool and spa owners and operators. Each year, hundreds of pools and spas in Ocean City and across Worcester County are issued operating certificates by state and local health departments, but those permits were threatened to be withheld if the owners and operators did not come into compliance with the new ADA standards by March 1, or right on the cusp of a new season.

However, Dr. Cliff Mitchell of DHMH this week explained operating certificates will be issued to most pool owners and operators in the resort area after considerable confusion arose over compliance with the new ADA standards.

“This generated a lot of questions,” he said. “There was considerable confusion after we met with industry people and the pool operators and we ultimately decided to relax the rules in the short term. We’re now basically allowing people to operate if they are in compliance or have a plan to be in compliance by 2013. Either they are in compliance or they’re working on it.”

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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.

When confusion arose over what exactly constituted compliance for the purpose of getting operating certificates in time for the summer season, DHMH officials came up with a plan to allow pool owners and operators to regulate themselves somewhat by submitting an affidavit explaining they were either in compliance or had a long-range plan to meet the new standards.

“We worked with the Attorney General’s Office and the industry and came up with a plan to essentially have the pool owners and operators self-certify,” said Mitchell. “Most submitted an affidavit certifying they are either already in compliance or have a plan to be in compliance depending what category they fall into.”

Meanwhile, the federal Department of Justice last week officially extended the deadline for compliance for 60 days from the original March 1 date after meeting with similar confusion and unanswered questions.

“This final rule, based on a finding of good cause, changes the date of compliance to May 21, 2012 in order to allow additional time to address misunderstandings regarding compliance with these ADA requirements,” the Department of Justice order reads. “Some pool owners and operators believed that taking certain steps would always satisfy their obligations under the ADA when, in fact, those steps would not necessarily result in compliance with the ADA regulations.”

However, Mitchell said this week the state’s DHMH plan to allow pool owners and operators to submit an affidavit outlining where they are in terms of meeting compliance with the new standards should satisfy the Department of Justice and avoid the holding back of any operating permits for this season.

“It’s unlikely anything the federal government will do with their compliance date will effect what we’re trying to do here in Maryland,” he said. “We’re allowing people to at least show they have a plan in place for coming into compliance. As long as they are working toward compliance, they should be okay.”

Much of the confusion has hinged on a variety of factors, most notably the public or non-public use of the facility. Clearly, hotel and motel pools open to renting public will have to comply, but the issue is muddier in terms of condominium or homeowner association pools. 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.”