Council agrees to pursue city-owned pool, rejects LBUSD joint-use option

By SARA HALL

City Council this week reviewed community pool alternatives and unanimously agreed to pursue a city-owned pool and not follow a joint-use option with the Laguna Beach Unified School District.

Councilmembers voted 5-0 on Tuesday (March 12) to direct staff to explore options to build a new 25-meter pool at an alternate location that would be constructed, operated and maintained by the city. The alternative was to follow-up on potential joint use of a 50-meter pool planned by LBUSD or the council could also decide to pursue both options.

The subcommittee tasked with looking into the issue comprised of Mayor Sue Kempf and Councilmember Bob Whalen.

They had several meetings with LBUSD staff and board subcommittee, city staff, Sensible Laguna representatives and other community members, Whalen said. After gathering input from the different stakeholders, they presented the full council with several options and did not make a specific recommendation.

“There’s no clear answer on this one,” Whalen said. “There are pros and cons to each option, and there’s really three options, but there’s no perfect solution.”

Councilmembers agreed that the better plan is for the city to build its own pool to better fit the community’s needs.

He much prefers owning versus renting, said Councilmember George Weiss, and it doesn’t make sense to essentially rent the pool from the district but pay for half of it. There would be a lot more flexibility in programs and access (particularly for families and young kids) if the city owned their own pool, he added. Another benefit is not being required to schedule programs around the school district, he added.

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand. If we provide programs, people will come,” Weiss said.

Councilmember Mark Orgill recommended moving the project to the “front of the line” of the facilities master plan so they can get started on it immediately.

The city hired Griffin Structures, Inc., to work on the facilities master plan, Orgill noted, and they are also the company that did the assessment on the previous pool plan. They are relatively up to speed and could jump on it fairly quick, he noted.

It’s a good idea to include it in the facilities master plan, Kempf noted, because the city is so compact. Everyone is on top of each other, she commented, there are no wide-open spaces to put a pool or other facilities.

“We will get opposition no matter where we try to put the pool in this town,” Kempf noted.

Putting it in the FMP will allow for the city to take a more holistic approach, she said.

The current pool is unacceptable for community’s needs, added Mayor Pro Tem Alex Rounaghi. At this point, he’s not prepared to make that kind of financial contribution to the school district, which has committed to moving forward with a 50-meter pool. The right place to put those funds is in the city’s facilities master plan, he agreed.

Whalen noted the challenges with the separate district and city timelines for constructing the pools. They can’t go two or three years without any access to a pool, but the process takes time, he said, so he suggested directing the committee to work with staff and Griffin Structures to figure out options for a plan for the interim.

Both Whalen’s and Orgill’s suggestions were ultimately included in the approved motion.

Click on photo for a larger image

Rendering courtesy of LBUSD

A preliminary rendering of the LBUSD pool

There was also a lot of discussion about the school district’s plan for a 50-meter pool and frustration with the lack of negotiation.

An objective of the subcommittee was to ensure the school district understood the needs for the programs provided by the city, Kempf explained. They asked the district officials “point blank” if LBUSD would be interested in building a 40-meter pool.

“They would not negotiate with us on size,” Kempf said. “They voted on a 50-meter pool, they plan to build a 50-meter pool – very clear.”

Kempf hoped they would negotiate with the school district, not just on size, but on programs and usage.

“That didn’t really happen. We had a lot of talks with them and, I think, a lot of good faith discussions, but, in the end, they just weren’t willing to compromise,” Kempf said.

The city has been a committed partner with the district since 1994, Weiss noted, and funds a large percentage of the operations and staff for the pool.

“Placing pressure on us to say ‘Take it or leave it’ – it doesn’t sit well with me. And that’s what this is and I just don’t think that’s right,” Weiss said.

The costs are pretty similar to either build the city’s own pool or go in with the district, several councilmembers and public speakers noted.

Their fiduciary obligation is to the taxpayers, the residents, Rounaghi said.

“It wouldn’t make sense at this point to go in with the district,” he said.

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Ultimately, both the city and LBUSD building pools is costly to the residents, Whalen noted.

“The net result of that, to us as taxpayers, is the most expensive outcome,” higher capital and operating costs overall, Whalen said. “That’s not ideal.”

The most efficient outcome would be a single location that meets both city and district needs, he noted, but that’s not what’s on the table.

“I think we just take the district at their word. I think they really believe the 50-meter pool best suits their programmatic needs and that’s where they’re at,” said Whalen, a former LBUSD board member. As a city councilmember, “I don’t think the 50-meter option is right for us, the city, the community, generally. It just can’t fulfill all our needs.”

The two groups have jointly operated the 25-meter pool situated on LBUSD property by the high school since 1994, explained Recreation Manager Alexis Braun. According to the terms of the joint-use agreement, the city is responsible for maintaining and operating the pool 70% of the time for community aquatics programs, while LBUSD utilizes it for the remaining 30%, she said. There is no city access to the pool between 1:30-6 p.m. during the school year. City programs utilize the pool in the mornings and in the evening until 9 p.m. The annual operating cost is $590,000, in which the city share is $522,000.

The number of shallow lanes available are critical to a number of the city programs, said Transit and Community Services Director Michael Litschi. The district plans do not currently have any allowance for shallow lanes or a teaching pool, he added, which could limit class options.

The city’s share of the initial capital cost would be $9.5 to $13.3 million (50-70% of the $19 million project), with the annual operating cost for the city ranging from $696,000-$763,000.

A new city-operated 25-meter pool would provide the greatest programming flexibility and the city would control the design, Litschi noted.

The idea has been discussed over the years, most recently in 2017, when the city completed a feasibility study of a 33-meter pool at Lang Park. Council ultimately placed the project on hold due to cost.

There would be a significant capital cost and a key factor will be identifying a suitable site. It’s expected to cost $13 million or more to build and approximately $692,000 for the annual operating cost.

Staff estimates the project would take three to five years to design and construct.

The city doesn’t need a full aquatics center built to hold swim meets with bleachers and other amenities, which is what was proposed several years ago and a key reason why the neighborhood opposed it, Orgill noted.

“I don’t think we need that; I think we need a pool,” he said.

They also need to figure out a location, Whalen added. There will be opposition to Lang Park, guaranteed, he said. Laguna Beach Community and Recreation Center (formerly St. Catherine of Siena School) is another option, but parking might be an issue.

“Every location that we have is going to have challenges,” he said and encouraged the public speakers who supported a community pool to attend the future meeting when they discuss potential locations. “There’s no perfect location.”

During public comment, a large majority of speakers were in favor of the city building their own community pool. While some supported a joint-use plan with the school district, most of the commenters strongly opposed LBUSD’s plans for a 50-meter pool.

Several agreed that the district is pushing forward with the large pool project, which does not fit the needs of the community and they aren’t negotiating with the city. It’s “their way or the highway,” one speaker commented, so the city should go their own way.

A new aquatic center for the school has been a hot topic at study sessions and lengthy forums for more than a year. The expansion aims to accommodate the growing demand from both LBUSD athletic programs and city-sponsored aquatics programs. City council and LBUSD board of education also held a special joint session and the pool was the most discussed issue.

Kempf and Whalen were appointed to the subcommittee in a 4-1 vote on October 10 (Weiss dissented) and asked to discuss pool options.

As part of the school district’s facility master plan, a majority of the school board approved building a 50-meter pool on December 14.

The district requested that the city indicate before March 31 the level of participation, if any, it would like to have in the design, financing and use of the expanded pool facility.

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.


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