DURHAM — A plan to hold a large public forum this fall regarding the future of the historic University of New Hampshire outdoor pool has been scrapped in favor of a new town/gown committee.
The town proposed forming a working group of town council members, community members and representatives of the university.
"The feeling was that we were really hopeful to work toward a solution rather than simply airing a variety of ideas that the university had put together in the early spring, but which hadn't been further defined," Durham Administrator Todd Selig said.
He said the university needs to know whether the town is interested in participating financially in preserving the pool, and the town needs a firmer number to work with as officials go through the fiscal year 2014 budgeting process.
Selig included $270,000 in the town's proposed 2014 budget to be used as a long-term, annual, municipal contribution toward the upgrade and future operation of the pool. But a new memorandum of understanding would need to be developed between Durham and UNH; it would also have to address issues pertaining to access for residents, pricing, parking and programming.
The proposal would bring the town's total projected budget increase over fiscal year 2013 to 4.35 percent. Without the contribution, the budget would only rise by .97 percent. A public hearing on the administrator's proposed 2014 budget is scheduled for Nov. 18.
"For something to be included in the budget for 2014, we need to have more detail right now. The allocation in the proposed budget is for really an undefined project. We need to define it, cost it out, and decide if the town desires to participate in that, some alternative, or not at all," Selig said.
The $270,0000 is equivalent to about a $2.5 million to $3 million bond payment over time, which is the current estimated cost difference between building a new 10,000-square-foot pool and the cost of retrofitting the existing facility.
If the town agrees to financially support preserving the existing pool footprint, UNH has agreed not to include it in its plans for the future expansion of the Hamel Recreation Center.
The UNH pool is one of few remaining WPA-era pools created around 1938 and is roughly 44,000 square feet in size.
The state Department of Environmental Services recently concluded a review of the pool and determined that it is a swimming pool, not a modified flow through pool, but because it predates any state standards, many facets of the pool have been "grandfathered."
DES highlighted its primary concerns, and said with upgrades, it may be possible for the UNH pool to achieve reasonable consistency with modern standards.
Selig said UNH would have to make the argument for continuing to grandfather certain elements of the pool.
"But UNH has no intent to make that argument. DES has formally outlined the pool does not meet modern standards, and UNH is very adamant it has to meet them," Selig said.
UNH: No pool in 2014
On Saturday, the university officially notified the town that as a result of the DES determination and the safety concerns, the pool will not be opened for the summer 2014 season.
Some residents are frustrated with this decision.
Resident and state Rep. Marjorie Smith said the letter from UNH to Selig notifying him of the decision was "disingenuous at best."
"It makes statements that cannot be corroborated in the way that this letter lays out, and to have an institution which I would think of as the intellectual pinnacle in the state act in this way causes me both personal pain and professional sadness," Smith said.
She said she has a high level of commitment to the university and during her years in the Legislature has worked as hard as anyone to advocate for it and its importance to the state.
"I am saddened to see a situation in which the university has chosen to take a path that is not one of cooperation and mutual respect," Smith said.
She said nowhere in the letter from NH DES does it say the pool should be closed, or that it compromises health and safety.
"In fact, it praises the university and the town for how well that facility has been maintained," Smith said.
She said she would have more respect and understanding for the university if it had just came out and said it is in their economic interest to get rid of the pool and use the space to build an enlarged recreation facility.
"But to now make it seem that the basis for their closing the pool isn't their own self-interest but because of their great concern for the health and safety of the people who use that pool, health and safety which the department says is not compromised, that causes me real pain," Smith said.
If the town council opts to eliminate the proposed pool funding, UNH still intends to move forward with the construction of a pool facility that would be open to the broader community.
The town/gown committee will meet again on Nov. 21.