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Oasis, but not an oasis; pool rules change sets off Pines

By Josh Davis, Associate Editor

(Dec. 28, 2017) Of all the strange goings on that occurred in Ocean Pines this year, perhaps none elicited as much passion as the abrupt policy shift of the Oasis swimming pool.

In early spring, a seemingly small change to the schedule at the pool, nearest to the community yacht club, set off a firestorm and led to the board of directors calling a special meeting to address the controversy.

Resident Gary Miller, a member of both the clubs and aquatics advisory committees, noticed a change in the spring/summer issue of the Ocean Pines Activity Guide released on April 4 and brought it to the attention of several board members and others in the community.

On page 26 of the activity guide, the Oasis pool, formerly called the yacht club pool, was listed as the “Adults-only pool (except for Sundays June 4-Sept. 3, 2-6 p.m.)”

This was a shock to some members of the community because the Oasis pool had long been an adults-only facility. According to several sources, the changes were made by interim General Manager Brett Hill without consulting the other directors.

Miller stated his objections to the change in a letter to the board and local media on April 5.

At the time, several directors also spoke out.

“This change did not include any discussion with the Board. However, there will be discussion forthcoming. Speaking for myself, I am opposed to this change,” Director Cheryl Jacobs said.

Director Doug Parks wrote he was in favor of maintaining the adults-only status of the pool, while Director Dave Stevens wrote in an email, “Changing a policy that has been in effect since the beginning of Ocean Pines nearly 50 years ago is hardly in the class of the routine … I believe that the most straightforward way to address this issue is for a board majority to request a special meeting, which will make it clear that our long-standing use of the of the pool as ‘adults-only’ is policy.”

About 200 people, an unusually large crowd, attended the special meeting and heard what they hoped: the introduction of family night on Sundays was not going to happen.

After hearing resident after resident decry the schedule shift, the Ocean Pines Board of Directors voted 5-2 to reverse Hill’s decision.

That victory was short lived, and the board would announce in July via press release that the Oasis pool would now be open to all ages, all the time. The vote was held in closed session.

The text of the release read, “The Board of Directors of the Ocean Pines Association unanimously approved the following motion, introduced by Acting General Manager Brett Hill, after consultation with legal counsel in closed session, on Sunday, July 9:

“I move that, after reviewing concerns raised by residents and legal counsel about whether the prohibiting children from using the adults only yacht club pool complies with state and federal law and Ocean Pines’ tax exempt purposes, the prohibition on children using the yacht club pool is temporarily suspended to allow time for further review, effective immediately.”

Hill elaborated on the announcement in a statement emailed to the Gazette.

“The pool has been restricted from those under the age of 18 for over 30 years,” he wrote. “The decision was made after exhaustive research by our legal firm, Lerch, Early, and Brewer, who have extensive HOA experience. They searched for every reasonable alternative, but at this time, have been unable to find any.

“There was not a strong demand for change, but there has been significant dialogue regarding the legality of the operation, which prompted OPA attorney involvement. The decision agreed to yesterday was the recommendation of counsel, which was approved unanimously by the board.

“As far as a timeframe, the board took prompt action upon receiving the legal opinion, but is still exploring other avenues to accommodate a facility of similar operations if legally permissible in some manner for the association. There has been some initial resistance from regular users of the adult pool, however this was a matter of complying with the laws of the state of Maryland, and the Fair Housing Act, which supersede the authority of a Board.”

After the decision was made public, a group of homeowners held a protest at the Oasis.

“Everybody’s pissed,” LizAnne Inscore, a part-time resident and homeowner, said. “There’s five pools in the neighborhood and four allow children. This is the only adult-only [pool] and it’s nice to come and relax and have some peace and quiet and not have to worry about little ones.

“We’ve raised our kids. We’ve been there, done that. It’s just nice to have a place to ourselves,” she added.

Homeowner Don Tomb called the policy change “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“They’re cutting their own throats, because, as a consequence, there’s a lot of people who aren’t going to join – I’m not going to join. If I want to go swim with kids, I’d go to any of those other pools,” he said. “I like nice peace and quiet. There’s plenty other places for kids to go to swim.”

He added allowing children to swim in a pool that was formerly restricted to adults, and often used by the elderly, was a safety issue.

“I’m not sure where [the decision] is coming from,” he said. “I don’t understand why kids want to come to this pool anyway. They can’t dive, they can’t jump in. There’s no deep end. It makes no sense to me.”

Miller would later resign from the aquatics committee to form the Oasis Pool Work Group and further look into the matter.

Aided by homeowner donations, Miller hired attorney Jim Almand from Ocean City firm Ayers, Jenkins, Gordy and Almand to get a second opinion, which apparently yielded some suggestions to soften the blow, but none to reverse the board decision.

Instead, the five women and two men present during the meeting considered rules that might help calm certain activities at the pool that were deemed undesirable.

“What we as group need to decide is what we want to recommend to the board and [Aquatics Director] Colby [Phillips],” Miller said. “As much as I would like to be able to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get back an adults-only pool,’ I don’t think that’s realistic. I think the best we can hope for is a quiet, adult-friendly Oasis pool.”

About a week later, the committee forwarded to the Ocean Pines Board of Directors a four-page letter of recommendations.

“Unfortunately, this sudden and drastic change to a long-standing amenity, without public input or discussion, caused a tremendous amount of suspicion, frustration and anger among a large segment of Ocean Pines residents,” the letter states.

“Many wonder how this could happen after so many years with no questions about the legality, and question if the law applies to a community that has five pools with only one designated as adult only. Because his research and legal recommendations were, and continue to be, discussed in closed session, many are suspicious of the findings acted on by the board.

“There were several heated confrontations this past summer between adults with young kids and long time YC pool users. Most of these were due to kids splashing and jumping near older residents, who were fearful of being knocked down and possibly injured. At times, the resulting confrontations almost got out of hand.”

Almand’s opinion, according to the statement, was changing pool rules to eliminate some of the behavior pool users found undesirable would be easier — and less legally treacherous — than banning younger swimmers altogether.

“There is … currently no law that would prohibit Ocean Pines Aquatics from prohibiting certain types of conduct at a particular pool as long as it is age-neutral, meaning it has to apply to ALL patrons,” the letter states. “The courts opinion specifically states that ‘…setting aside certain hours for lap swimming … or imposing restrictions on making noise … or running or roughhousing in the pool area’ is allowed.

“After reviewing all of the information, it appears that Ocean Pines can best address this issue by creating a ‘Quiet Pool,’ an environment similar to an ‘Adults-only’ pool but without violating the FHA. This can be accomplished by prohibiting certain conduct at the pool rather than prohibiting a particular status or age group. Charging a premium rate for use of the Oasis pool, and addressing the underage alcohol consumption concerns are additional options.”

The statement continued, “The best option, in our opinion, is to create a true ‘Oasis Pool’ atmosphere at the YC pool. This can be accomplished by instituting additional strict rules of conduct that will apply to EVERYONE using that pool, such as no running, no cannonballs, no shouting, no loud noises, no Marco-polo, etc.

“The problem with this plan is enforcing the new rules. Younger kids may not listen and some parents may not pay attention. Asking a young lifeguard to tell an adult that they have to keep their child quiet or under control is not going to work and is really not fair to the lifeguard.”

The group recommended publicizing new rules “as soon as ​approved by the Board,” and giving a copy and requiring a signature to anyone who purchases a pool membership or day pass. Adult lifeguards should be on duty at the pool and rules should be strictly enforced, the group stated.

Additionally, they advised emailing lapsed pool members to encourage their return.

“It is our hope that the efforts of this group of concerned Ocean Pines Residents to find a reasonable solution in an open public forum, to a problem that has divided the community, will be discussed and considered by the BOD and GM,” the statement concluded. “We would also ask that these findings and recommendations be included as a topic in an upcoming public Board meeting.”

Parks, who was appointed association president by a board vote in August, praised the work of the committee, but said it would not be a topic for discussion during the final board meeting of the year, Nov. 30.

“I applaud them for taking the initiative and vetting the process a little bit more,” he said. “One, it validates the fact that the legal opinion was correct and there was no other recourse. It also showed there was a whole lot of passion there … they took it upon themselves to get a number of different perspectives to see if there was anything else, rather than just throwing their arms up, and I applaud them. I think they did a service to the association by doing that.

“I think we should really move forward with the behavior aspects [of the pool],” he continued. “I think they’re easy to identify and they’re easy to manage when there’s a set of rules of there.”