Durham council axes $270,000 request for UNH pool
DURHAM — Town council members voted unanimously to remove $270,000 from the proposed fiscal year 2014 budget after hearing more than an hour of public comment from a wide range of residents.
The money was included by Durham Administrator Todd Selig as an annual allocation to help pay to preserve the historic University of New Hampshire outdoor pool, which is primarily used by town residents and since 1938 has served as an important community gathering space.
Although most residents who spoke said they want to see the pool remain open this coming summer and into the future, they did not want to see the town take on such a financial burden.
Resident Kenny Rotner is a member of the Friends of the UNH Outdoor Pool, a group that formed to push to preserve the pool, but Rotner said he could not see the town budgeting that kind of money to spend on the pool.
Many residents expressed frustration with the university's announcement last week that it would close the pool for the 2014 season amid safety concerns.
Under a 2006 contract with the town, the university is required to give the town a one-year notice if they intend to close the pool, but it can be closed with less notice if required by order of state Department of Environmental Services.
In a letter to Selig on Nov. 1, Mark Rubinstein, vice-president for student and academic services at the university cited an Oct. 11 report from DES identifying the pool as a public bathing facility and not a modified-flow through pool as their reason for the closure, as the historic pool has many elements that have been "grandfathered" and do not meet modern standards.
But residents said the DES report did not indicate the pool is unsafe, nor did it order the university to close the pool, and those residents feel the town council should hold the university to their contract and require them to open the pool this coming summer.
Phyllis Heilbronner has lived in Durham for close to 60 years and said the pool is a wonderful draw for UNH and Durham.
"The issue that seems to keep coming up about liability and risk has something of a hollow ring to it when there are other issues that have in campus life risks and liability and they don't seem to be such a source of contention, and there are many of them," she said.
"I think there is more likelihood of a UNH student drowning in their own vomit while drunk than drowning in that pool," councilor Julian Smith said.
Resident and UNH history professor Julia Rodriguez said she and about 10 colleagues sent a letter to the university asking the administration to preserve the pool on historic preservation grounds.
But on Monday, she spoke at the meeting as a local parent, who is a bit germaphobic. She said she is confused about the university's adamant concern about the health and safety of the pool as it does not connect with her experience at the pool, or with how she understood the DES letter.
"It seems to me there are some pretty significant openings for necessary upgrades and improvements without resorting to closure," Rodriguez said.
She and others suggested the town conduct its own engineering review of the pool and perhaps work on a proposal and budget to take ownership of it, or at least manage it for the summer until a long-term plan is determined.
Still others said they are fine with the university's plan to build a smaller pool that would meet modern-day standards.
Resident Cathy Leach said she would encourage residents to think about what a new pool could do for the community, including offering a bigger apron, fun elements for children, better changing areas and cleaner bathrooms.
UNH student body president Bryan Merrill attended the meeting and presented the council with a Student Senate motion indicating that they would only support a 10,000-square-foot pool, as the bulk of the cost for the pool comes from their student activity fees.
Merrill said as representatives of the student body, the senate feels the town should pay for anything above a 10,000-square-foot pool.
The town council will take up the issue of the pool again following a Nov. 21 meeting of the town/gown committee currently waiting for design plans and pricing from the university for different alternatives for the outdoor pool.