Council approves three free pool days

Compromise offered for July 4, two other dates


November 19, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Council has come up with a compromise for a small contingent of residents who routinely lobby the Columbia Association to charge nothing for its 23 outdoor pools, which are among the planned community's most coveted amenities.

The council agreed to make all the pools free for three days in the summer: July 4 and two other days to be determined.

"It's a start," said Joshua Feldmark, the council's vice chairman, who had proposed that the association's lesser-used pools rotate a day each week when they could be used for a nominal charge. "I don't think it's a bad idea. It's just not as good of an idea."

Feldmark said he wanted more discounted days for residents who have questioned how they benefit from the annual assessment they pay to the homeowners association.

"To me, the pools are, at least in part, they're more of a community service than a recreational facility," he said.

Ruth Cargo of Oakland Mills, who has routinely lobbied the association to make the pools free, said the council members' offer of only three free days shows "they're totally missing the point."

Cargo said that having free pools comes down to an issue of social justice. She said she wants to prevent what she said is the typical scene at the Oakland Mills pools - the youngsters who come from wealthier families swimming, while those whose families can't afford the pools stand outside the fences around the pools.

"We need to have free pools so we don't have half our kids being haves and half of them being have-nots," Cargo said.

Membership in all the pools costs $273 for a new member family this past summer. A membership in a limited number of pools costs $175 a family this year.

The Columbia Association offers discount rates to income-qualified residents for package-plan memberships - which include use of the pools - as well as free memberships to teen-agers or families who do volunteer work at the association's facilities. A family of four with an income of up to $53,850 would be eligible for such programs, said Michelle Miller, the association's vice president for community services.

`A limited sentiment'

Kathleen Larson, who heads the association's citizen budget advisory committee, said she doesn't think the association should be asking the assessment payers to financially support free pools, unless the association makes clear that that is its intention. She said she regularly uses the pools, and aside from residents' testimony during council meetings, she has heard only one person suggest free pools.

"I just don't find that sentiment. It's a very limited sentiment," Larson said. " ... Most people feel like the rates are cheap."

Councilwoman Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown said she is concerned that some of the more popular pools will be overwhelmed during the free days. She voted against the proposal Thursday night, saying that it should apply only to the lesser-used pools. Those would include the pools at Talbot Springs, Bryant Woods, Hobbit's Glen and Locust Park, which had a three-year average of 7,000 to 11,000 swimmers annually.

Rob Goldman, the association's vice president for sport and fitness, said all pool staff members will work July 4 to accommodate the expected extra swimmers. If the pools would become unusually busy and the number of swimmers would exceed safety regulations, then not everyone would be allowed in the pool, he said.

Crowds not expected

That could happen at the River Hill, Kendall Ridge, Hawthorn and Dorsey Hall pools, which are Columbia's most popular, averaging from 45,000 to 69,000 swimmers annually.

"The Fourth of July is a really busy day anyway, and if we get a large handful of additional people, that's going to make it even busier," Goldman said. "But I'm not really concerned there's going to be hundreds and hundreds of extra swimmers."

Generally, Goldman said, he doesn't expect the pools to be besieged with swimmers on the free days. "I feel that, for the most part, those residents who wish to use our outdoor pools are already using them," he said.

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