Turning up heat on pool-crashers

Swimming: Owners are going to greater lengths to keep unwelcome visitors from sneaking a swim.

June 08, 1999|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Fed up with finding strangers cooling off in their pools, apartment owners, community groups and homeowners are fighting back this summer.

In what's becoming an annual post-Memorial Day struggle, pool owners are building fences and barricades, hiring guards and taking other measures to keep out unwanted swimmers. Two Washington-area community pools even installed an underwater sonar system to alert police and release a whirlwind of flashing lights and sirens on illicit nighttime swimmers.

"To be honest, I hate the pool season," said apartment manager Loretta Campbell, who sees more and more people every year try to slip past the pool gate at Autumn Woods in Howard County.

"Around here we dread it. We get people that drive through and look at the names and apartment numbers on the mailboxes and come to the gate trying to say, I'm so-and-so."

The trespassers -- or as one apartment manager calls them, "the infiltrators" -- may be driven to their desperate acts. Private land ownership has shut much of the Chesapeake Bay's shoreline, and swim clubs are too pricey for many. With few other options, people may find the allure of those unguarded private pools spied on the way to work, the ones just over the iron-rod fence in neighboring apartment complexes, or even those in suburbanites' back yards, too great to resist.

Joan Taylor, manager at Marley Station apartments in Anne Arundel County, said the excuses she hears get more creative every year. Would-be swimmers claim to know their aunt's friend's mother, who lives in the complex. Or they'll point to other people's kids and say they are baby sitters.

"We usually get the, `I just moved in this weekend' or `My grandmother lives here,' " she said.

Tougher measures

Managers say those easy days of getting poolside by jauntily flashing keys at a lifeguard to demonstrate residence or by chatting up unsuspecting pool users as if you were their new neighbor are over.

Pool-supply store owners are doing a brisk business in easy-to-install, unclimbable, 6-foot-tall fencing. Managers at Autumn Woods installed an 8-foot-tall iron fence to replace the old 6-foot chain-link fence that had a hole in the bottom, and hung a big sign in bold letters that reads "Posted -- No one admitted without proper pass."

Others have raised pool fences 2 to 4 feet, or have planted thorny bushes next to the fences to stop unauthorized nighttime swimmers.

Managers across the region have beefed up security, hiring "pool bouncers" to watch the gate and requiring residents to show photo ID to get into their pools.

Judy Madera, manager of Stagecoach Apartments in Anne Arundel County, is giving the "pool bouncer" a try this year.

"We have one guard that sits at the gate and checks pool passes and we have another guard that watches the pool," Madera said. "If they don't have a pool pass they are sent to the office. And they are not going to be making an issue of it in my office."

Many community pools and complexes gave up trying to enforce bathing suit patches as admittance tickets or hoping that guards could simultaneously keep an eye out for nonresidents while trying to watch the pool.

At Shelter Cove in Odenton, office workers take turns manning the deck, approaching anyone who looks like an outsider.

"Each year it seems to get worse," said Carrie Harrison, assistant manager at Cambridge Commons in Odenton.

Builders cash in

Pool builders such as Mark Wilkinson, president of Paddock Swimming Pools in Rockville, are cashing in on the problem, offering to build pool owners "perimeter systems."

Over the past several years, Wilkinson and other pool builders have begun offering the latest in high-security measures as an added service to digging holes and filling them with water.

"Municipal clients want more protection these days," said Wilkinson, who built a nighttime security system for the pool at Druid Hill Park. "They usually like a system that doesn't necessarily hurt people but will deter people from coming in."

He said he's gone as far as adding barbed wire to keep people out, though most customers don't like the "creepy feeling" it gives to families trying to enjoying a Sunday at the pool.

An alternative is fences where the pole that usually braces the top of the fence is at the bottom, making it wobbly and difficult to climb.

"In the end it's not a fencing problem," he said. "The problem is that there aren't enough swimming pools or places to swim."

Less access to shore

The Chesapeake Bay used to be saturated with swim clubs whose bungalows and slot machines drew people by the thousands from as far west as Pittsburgh. Today, private developers own most of those properties.

In Anne Arundel County, with the third-most shoreline of any Maryland county, only two public swim parks exist: Sandy Point and Fort Smallwood.

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