Plan would close, repurpose some Columbia pools

SplashDown could be removed and replaced. One outdoor pool could be enclosed and opened year-round for swimmers. Another outdoor pool could be transformed into a pool-less water playground.

These are among the changes planned as the Columbia Association considers a proposal reenvisioning its outdoor neighborhood pools and other aquatics facilities.

But as the CA board gets set to weight the proposal, some village board members want those doing the reenvisioning to be reminded of Columbia's original vision.

"Neighborhood pools are an essential part of the whole concept of Columbia," said Karen Hitcho, chairwoman of the Long Reach village board."It's probably the most popular amenity. People purchase their homes with the neighborhood pool in mind."

Long Reach, Oakland Mills, Owen Brown and Wilde Lake are the four villages where pools could potentially change, either to an indoor facility or to a water playground. Those changes were outlined in a draft of CA's aquatics master plan, which would change how the association's 28 pools are operated and what amenities they offer.

The draft will be presented at a public meeting Tuesday, Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. in Claret Hall in River Hill.

The 48-page document includes recommended fixes and upgrades at 13 pools and gyms, from adding a spa in Hobbit's Glen to the larger proposals that could bring major changes to Dasher Green in Owen Brown, Faulkner Ridge in Wilde Lake, Jeffers Hill and Locust Park in Long Reach, and Stevens Forest and Talbott Springs in Oakland Mills.

The draft calls for a study to determine whether to enclose Dasher Green, Locust Park or Talbott Springs. The pool in Faulkner Ridge could become a water playground.

The fate of Jeffers Hill could depend on what happens with Locust Park; if Locust Park is enclosed, then Jeffers Hill would have a water playground added to its site. If Locust Park remains an outdoor pool, then Jeffers Hill could become a water park.

Talbott Springs, if not enclosed, could eventually close as an aquatics facility. And if Talbott Springs is repurposed, then Stevens Forest could have a water playground open for free to the entire community on CA land nearby.

"We have a wonderful program. We have a lot of pools," said Jane Dembner, CA's director of community planning. "It's definitely a plus, and also, on the challenge side, it means more costs, more staff time. We have to always be looking ahead."

In the 1980s CA moved away from the concept that a pool was for the residents of each neighborhood, Dembner said. "They're outdoor pools for the whole community, and they're used like that," she said, noting that a vast majority of people do not swim at their "home pool" but rather go elsewhere.

The aquatics master plan process has incorporated feedback from residents through meetings, workshops, focus groups and surveys. CA staff and its aquatics master plan task force also have spoken to experts.

'A road map'

One goal of the plan seeks is to ensure that the aquatics facilities meet the future needs of residents and pool users, taking into consideration the changing demographics of the area and the reality of constrained resources and rising energy costs, Dembner said.

"The plan is a road map," she said. "That people have different perspectives doesn't necessarily undermine that it's a good plan. The goal isn't necessarily that everybody agrees on everything. Planning has to make tough choices."

CA needs more indoor pool space, Dembner said. The three pools being studied for possible enclosure, all on the east side of Columbia, were selected because of their location, parking possibilities, the location of their bath houses and the fact that they had eight lanes.

Faulkner Ridge and Talbott Springs are the two pools in fair condition; the rest are considered good or excellent.

Faulkner Ridge "has some problems with it, and that area has lots of pools in it," Dembner said. "Neighborhoods around it are taken care of, plus the indoor [Columbia Swim Center] is there in Wilde Lake. We have a lot of pools in that area. Some are not well-utilized, so perhaps there is a need to refresh and try something else."

The pool, should it be repurposed, would remain open until another major improvement is needed.

The Wilde Lake village board opposes that pool being repurposed, said Bill Santos, the board's chairman. Repairing the pool's shell would mean the water there would not need to be replaced as often and would be warmer and more inviting, he said, and adding some amenities could attract more visitors.

Closing Faulkner Ridge would leave a local swim team without its home pool and would send neighborhood residents farther away to a pool in Bryant Woods he described as "relatively small."

Similarly, the Oakland Mills village board does not want the Talbott Springs pool closed and would prefer it instead be repaired, said Abby Hendrix, the board's chairwoman. She, too, called for more amenities at the pool, which she said only recently had hot water added to the bathrooms and tables and chairs placed at poolside.

Talbott Springs is the least visited outdoor pool in Columbia. "There are a lot of reasons we feel it's got low numbers there," Hendrix said. "Before we consider any other option, we would like CA to try something to at least encourage people to go before they consider closing it."

Enclosing it, she said, would make the pool more inviting to other Columbia residents but might make it less available to those in the neighborhood due to pool programs, she said.

In Long Reach, board Chairwoman Karen Hitcho said she supported adding a water playground to Jeffers Hill, but not if it meant converting the pool already there. She said that would force families and kids to cross Route 175 to go to the pool in Locust Park.

Hitcho and Owen Brown board chairman Wayne Eldridge both endorsed the prospect of pools in their villages being enclosed.

As for SplashDown, the plan recommends an immediate study on repurposing it, then removing the water slides and replacing them with another family-friendly feature the next time a major repair is needed there.

The facility has been closed this season as improvements are made to its stair tower and is predicted to reopen in March. More repairs are expected to be needed in coming years.

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