Federal laws designed to improve access to public swimming pools and spas for people with disabilities have created a buzz among those in San Luis Obispo County who run hotels, school districts, city recreation programs and community pools.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 calls for the owners of pools that are open to the public to install permanent lifts or underwater ramps to provide access for people with disabilities by Jan. 31. The deadline had been set for Monday, but it was extended late last week.
The lifts resemble small cranes that stand at a pool’s edge and lower swimmers in a chair into the water. When the law was first updated in 2010, some in the hotel industry assumed they could comply by using portable lifts and purchased them.
That changed when the federal Justice Department issued an interpretation of the law this year saying permanently affixed lifts were required, where feasible and affordable.
In response to an outcry from hotel owners, the Justice Department delayed the compliance deadline twice: once on March 15 and again Friday.
That’s a silver lining for many hoteliers in San Luis Obispo County who say they are struggling to comply with and understand the changes.
Several local hoteliers wrote letters disputing the need for fixed lifts at every pool and spa, officials said.Pool manufacturers estimate that the law applies to about 256,000 pools and spas across the country. Only a small percentage of those pools are equipped with lifts, they estimate. In San Luis Obispo County, cities, the county, schools and hotels have installed lifts or are working to comply.
Permanent lifts cost up to $10,000 each, plus installation. Portable lifts, costing up to $3,000, can be removed from the pool when not in use. The requirement also can be satisfied by pool ramps, which are more expensive.
Hotel owners say they want to improve pool access but are concerned that permanent lifts left unattended might be a safety hazard for children, who they say would be tempted to play on them.
The deadline extensions were sought in part because there’s a backlog of orders for permanent lifts, which for some made it impossible to meet the May 21 deadline.
Details of local situation
San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles — the only cities among the county’s seven with city-run public pools — already have permanent pool lifts.
The county, which runs seven community pools in rural areas such as Shandon and Cayucos, has portable lifts installed at four of its pools. Officials are working on a program to comply at the other three pools.
The two local school districts that operate swimming pools available to the public — Lucia Mar and Atascadero — also have lifts on to-do lists.
Other school districts use city or county pools, or none at all.
Kevin Baker, director of the Lucia Mar school district’s facilities and maintenance department, said he expects the district to spend between $10,000 and $15,000 to install lifts at Arroyo Grande and Nipomo high schools, because the pools there are open to the public during the summer. Atascadero’s school district has two pools, and neither has lifts yet, but the district is working on it.
Hoteliers are also “working to find a common-sense solution,” said Stacie Jacob, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau. The organization represents about 200 hotels countywide.The cost to install lifts poses a “significant cost to many of our small hotel businesses,” she added.
Jim Guthrie, an Arroyo Grande council member who manages the Spyglass Inn in Pismo Beach, said the hotel spent approximately $8,000 about two months ago to purchase a portable lift for its pool and spa.
He said the location of the pool and spa would make it difficult to install separate, permanent lifts because doing so would restrict some access to those facilities. He said he’s not sure what the hotel owner will do if required to buy permanent lifts.
Many hoteliers are still seeking clarity on the exact requirements in the law.
Safety a key concern
Vicki Blackburn is an instructor at Paso Robles’ therapy pool, and two spinal cord surgeries have left her with limited mobility. The pool is a remarkable place for the disabled, she said, but installing lifts at all public pools may cause more issues.
Because many hotel pools lack lifeguards or assistants, she’s scared for people who may use the lifts unattended and believes the government may not be thinking that through.
“It’s not about just being able to get in. It’s about getting in safely, getting out safely and being safe inside that pool,” she said.
But advocates for the disabled say the requirements are needed.
“I think it needs to be abundantly clear that these rules need to be enforced,” said Lara Schwartz, vice president of external affairs for the American Association of People with Disabilities. “We can’t just kick this can down the road.”
Pool operators who do not comply with the regulations could be vulnerable to lawsuits, according to hotel industry experts.
Paso Robles hotelier Matt Masia, who owns three hotels with pools in Paso Robles and Cambria with his family, is working to comply with the lift laws.
“Everyone is sympathetic, and I am, too. I think we all are. And I’m not opposed to putting a lift in, but I would prefer a portable one for safety and liability,” he said.
Tribune staff, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press contributed to this report.