Some hoteliers in Maine whose properties feature pools and hot tubs are concerned that new handicap accessibility laws that have recently been clarified by the federal government may prove costly and burdensome.
The addition to the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that all hotels with wading pools, swimming pools and hot tubs — or spas — be handicap accessible. This means providing a lift. The rules were released in 2010, but were clarified in late January.
It’s that clarification that is causing heartburn in the tourism industry. According to the clarification from the U.S. Department of Justice, hotel owners must install a fixed lift for each pool or spa. In most cases, a portable lift can’t be used. And each water feature must have its own lift — two adjacent can’t share one lift.
The rules were unclear until recently, said Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association, and now a deadline of March 15 is looming.
“People really didn’t know what to do,” said Dugal. “I think it really comes down to the fact that [the DOJ is] being inflexible and they waited a long time to be that way.
“I think if they could delay implementation so we could sort this out, and reconcile the fact so portables could be used, you’d see the furor die down.”
Of the 1,600 lodging properties in Maine, Dugal figures there are at least 300-400 that have at least one pool or hot tub.
Mark Foster, an owner and managing partner at the Stage Neck Inn in York Harbor, has one of those properties. He also is a partner in hotel in New Hampshire. Both hotels have a pool and adjacent hot tub. The York Harbor inn has a second pool, as well — for a total of five pools.
“The frustration is not the law, but the interpretation of the law by the Department of Justice is really onerous,” Foster said.
They had originally bought three portable lifts, thinking the pools and hot tubs that were adjacent could share a lift, and the extra pool in Maine would have its own. As it turns out, they can’t use any of them to meet the federal rules, Foster said. The lifts haven’t been delivered; the company has paid half the cost and is trying to cancel the order.
So under the clarification, Foster’s business needs five fixed lifts, which run about $6,000 each, which doesn’t include installation costs.
“Our costs went from $18,000 to $28,000, plus installation — whatever that is,” Foster said. “It’s just a backbreaker. We’re scrambling. We’ve ordered two, we’ll see if they come in time.”
In nearby Ogunquit, the Beachmere Inn is also facing the installation of a permanent lift for its eight-person hot tub. Cost isn’t the primary problem there, said Sarah Diment, who owns the inn that’s been in her family for 75 years with her mother.
Rather, the hot tub is in the inn’s basement level. Diment is worried that drilling into the concrete floor to permanently mount the lift could cause hydrostatic problems in the foundation — which had been carefully laid with liners and other barriers to prevent water intrusion.
“Installing through concrete is the concern. I do that and the finger’s come out of the dam,” Demint said.
Another potential issue, she said, was whether the lift would be an attractive nuisance.
“This is going to be a very prominent piece of equipment,” Diment said. “I’m concerned about children who are not kept under the eye of a parent playing on it. What happens if somebody gets hurt? It’s going to be appealing…”
However, Kristen Aiello, staff attorney with the Disability Rights Center in Maine, said the ADA and its new requirements were “far from Draconian.”
“For example, a small motel with an existing pool may not have the resources to become fully compliant. If so, that business may be exempt from the new standards,” she wrote in a statement. “On the other hand, a large hotel with sufficient resources has an obligation to ensure that its pools are equipped with accessible means of entry in compliance with the ADA.”
She added that businesses should have had sufficient time to make necessary investments.
“The revised ADA regulations gave businesses 18 months to become compliant with the pool accessibility standards. Businesses were given an additional year to plan for compliance, or to make a determination that compliance is not readily achievable,” she wrote. “In addition, the Internal Revenue Service provides a credit for small businesses and a tax deduction for all businesses that remove architectural barriers.”
Dugal said he has spoken with hundreds of innkeepers and no one has ever told him a customer had requested a portable lift for a pool or hot tub. Most owners of larger properties agree that Maine’s population is aging, and providing handicap access to pools or hot tubs makes sense. But, Dugal said, a portable lift should be sufficient.
Foster agreed. A portable lift would make sense. And, he said, if people were waiting in line to use the lift, he’d put a second one in, because “it’d be good for business.”
“My sense is these things will sit unused, in the way — a lot,” he said.
Aiello, of the Disability Rights Center, agreed with the concept that accessibility would be good for business.
“Opening doors for full participation is good for business. According to the Department of Justice, more than 50 million Americans have disabilities. By the year 2030, an estimated 71.5 million baby boomers will be over age 65,” she noted. “All of these individuals are potential customers. Opening the doors for business for people with disabilities expands customer base and promotes inclusivity. It’s a win-win.”
Foster said he has spoken with Sen. Susan Collins’ office about the regulations, which he said have “no logic.”
Kevin Kelley, the Maine Republican’s spokesman, said his boss has heard from several Maine businesses “that want to fully comply with the American Disabilities Act, yet are confused by the conflicting guidance being issued by the Justice Department.”
They are also concerned about the short time given for them to comply following the clarification, said Kelley.
“These businesses want to do the right thing, which is why Sen. Collins believes that it’s important that the Justice Department be very clear both to ensure that it is not imposing costly unnecessary burdens, and that its regulations are in line with common sense,” Kelley said.