'Adults-only' pool issue heads for vote tonight by village board


The Harper's Choice village board is expected to vote tonight on an issue that many residents say has become symbolic of an evolving Columbia.

The proposal -- that certain hours be set aside for adults at Hobbit's Glen pool -- doesn't seem momentous. But it's indicative of choices the Columbia Council is facing more frequently in setting policy for the 25-year-old town:

* Should the board deviate from founder James Rouse's original vision?

* Should generating revenue ever outweigh tradition and community interests?

* Should more attention be focused on serving a population that is aging and in which there are more single adults and nontraditional families?

The vote by the village board is only a recommendation, providing the council, which has the authority to change policy, with a sense of community sentiment. Board members could consider several proposals or vote for further study.

One option, presented by Columbia Council Chairman John Hansen, who also serves as Harper's Choice's representative, is to restrict the Hobbit's Glen pool to adults only on Saturday and Sunday evenings and Mondays after the pool is cleaned. The pool normally is closed on Mondays.

The debate has been contentious, even nasty, say several Harper's Choice officials and members of 1st Place, a Columbia singles group that supports creating more recreational options targeted to adults.

But many Hobbit's Glen residents oppose adults-only hours at their neighborhood pool, saying that children should not be excluded at any time.

They've expressed concern about a "singles atmosphere" -- noise, traffic, unfamiliar visitors and possibly alcohol use.

The residents say they don't want their neighborhood used to evaluate whether designating certain times for adults would increase pool membership, daily visits and revenue. Rebecca Johnson and Bonnie Hudak, who have organized opposition to the proposal, say they would be more amenable if the concept were tried at all 21 Columbia outdoor pools.

"Our neighborhood should not have to feel the whole brunt if it's such a great idea," said Ms. Hudak.

The Columbia Association, which operates the unincorporated city's recreational facilities, has been seeking ways to increase use of pools with poor attendance. Columbia's outdoor pools are operating at a $1.5 million loss per year, increasing the association's deficit and placing a heavier financial burden on property owners.

Several Harper's Choice village representatives say they are disturbed by the residents' reactions and an unwillingness to negotiate.

"They've taken the idea that nobody can come into my neighborhood. I find that real disturbing," said village board Chairwoman Hope Sachwald.

L Board member Laura Waters said she has taken a broader view.

"Columbia residents will have to look at how much money we're losing," she said. "There are 21 pools for kids, and none for adults. What I'm afraid will happen is we'll kill the idea and the council will kill it because they don't want to face it, and it will get worse."

Ms. Waters said she has talked with some Harper's Choice residents who like the concept.

Ms. Sachwald said several village residents "with other opinions" attended the March 16 meeting, but were too "intimidated" by the 40 or so opponents to speak.

Sue Senate, a 1st Place member, said two other members of the organization "were intimidated by the mob scene" and didn't speak.

"They made me feel very defensive," said Ms. Senate, a single parent from Town Center. "It was 'us vs. them' thinking, rather than deciding how to look at the issue, pool resources and solve it together. They're trying to insulate themselves from the rest of Columbia."

Ms. Senate, who emphasizes that 1st Place is open to options, said the residents "played on emotions" by bringing children to the meeting.

"I felt they used emotional pleas rather than looking at facts," she said. "How can the Columbia Association lose $1.4 million without doing something to serve its client base and make it a profitable venture?"

Mr. Rouse doesn't agree with Ms. Senate's analysis. He wrote a letter to CA in January, responding to a proposal to convert certain lesser-used pools into "adults-only" pools.

"I can find no justification for changing the operation of a neighborhood pool because it is not being used as much as other pools and there is a better market for some other use," wrote the Rouse Co. founder. "The only valid question would be: Does it serve the neighborhood?"

Ms. Hudak, who helped gather petition signatures, charged that the village board "is not really truly representing the real voice in the community."

Ms. Waters said, "I just can't support them because they showed up with a petition."

Although the adult-hours concept hasn't been tried at Columbia's pools, CA has employed it at the Columbia Ice Rink, which holds "adult night" twice monthly on Saturdays. CA reported that a record of nearly 600 adults attended Feb. 7.

Ms. Senate said 1st Place might ask the council to convene a task force to address the issue "on a wide scale basis."

The village board will meet at 7:30 p.m. at Kahler Hall, at 5440 Old Tucker Row.

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