Ed.: Updated Oct. 13, 2023
Roughly one year after the Friends of Lopez Island Pool (FLIP) excitedly announced they would finally break ground for their long-sought-after private pool, fallow earth remains in waiting on Pool Lane, with no water in sight.
The hold up: building permits stuck in an approval purgatory due to staffing and technology problems at the San Juan County Building Division, according to Anne Marie MacPherson, FLIP’s executive director since 2021. [Ed.: Correction; originally cited 2018.] The original design was submitted for permit approval in July 2018, and FLIP has gone through a series of amendments that have seen many delays since.
“Last year, [the county] could not release our building permit in time for us to break ground. [It was] devastating for us and the community,” said MacPherson.
FLIP currently has $7 million for the project through their 1,100 donors, 73% of them residents of Lopez according to 2022 data. Estimated yearly operating costs for the pool have risen to $750,000 due to adjustments for inflation, new equipment, and staffing.
MacPherson acknowledges the group cannot fully project the costs of the pool in full; construction was given a ballpark estimate of $6 million in 2022. Currently, the project has roughly 80% of necessary funding to build and operate. Nonetheless, she believes the pool will operate “in the black”, without deficit, by year three.
“We have been very conservative in our revenue estimates,” she wrote in a recent email to the Salish Current. Donations, she says, will pour in once the project gets the greenlight. “We feel confident with a permit in hand, we can then close the gap,” she said.
‘Back to the drawing board’
FLIP plans on building two pools on their 2.5-acre site: a 25-yard, four-lane lap pool and a warm-water wellness and teaching pool. The pool will be membership based, with a sliding scale fee that offers a 50–90% discount, intended to make it accessible to all members of the community.
The design has gone through many iterations over time, with some of the biggest changes coming this past year. “When we didn’t break ground, we went back to the drawing board,” said MacPherson. The board brought in expert help, hiring an aquatics consultant in 2021 and an engineering firm in January of 2022. Through collaboration and calculating for sizable inflation since the pool’s conception, the board decided to downsize the effort to save costs.
The pool now has a simpler shower house design, more energy-efficient equipment to save on operating costs and a heated, air-inflated dome that will serve as cover in cooler months and be deflated for open-air swimming in the summer. In addition, the pool will use chlorinated water instead of the more corrosive salt water originally planned for.
MacPherson said she is especially excited about the steel structure of the pool and the quality of the equipment in the design, all of which she is confident will last a long time. As these changes have been communicated to the community through forums and newsletters,
MacPherson said, confidence in the project has only increased. It is “so invigorating now seeing the change in people’s faces, they’re thankful, confident,” MacPherson said. Regardless of enthusiasm, permitting delays may continue to halt the project and construction can’t happen in cold winter months, leaving the ground barren until at least 2024.
Reviews, adjustments, delays
Permitting hold-ups have recently plagued broader San Juan County, delaying building projects for months or years at a time. A heated community meeting on Orcas recently surfaced these problems. At the meeting, attended by council chair Cindy Wolf, “numerous complaints and case histories were aired to show a pattern of delays and abuses at the Department of Community Development,” according to a May article in The Journal of the San Juan Islands.
Norman Gollub, interim director of the Department of Community Development (DCD), says reviewing a complex facility and considering its various elements, which, for the pool, requires 13 sub-approvals, simply takes time.
Thorough reviews and the need for many adjustments have required FLIP to amend designs many times over, which is a necessary fact of designing a large facility that is safe, Gollub explained in an email to the Salish Current.
This past July, the primary consultant, outsourced by the department to help manage the influx of permits, indicated to DCD that the pool plan “looked good with some exceptions that needed to be addressed prior to their continuing further review,” wrote Gollub. These concerns included the weight of the facility in consideration of soil pressure, and the classification of the building related to its 300-person maximum occupation.
Both were submitted in recent days. This is all a matter of safety, wrote Gollub. “When permits are issued, every building component will have been reviewed for compliance with the state and international building codes and we can say that the health, safety and welfare of the public has been addressed.”
These seemingly constant delays to the pool project have left some concerned about its feasibility. In the past few years, some opponents have become more worried and more vocal.
David Bill is among them, and described the informal group of vocal opponents as “friends with a long history on the island, a shared concern for the environment, the island’s culture, and well-being of our treasured community.”
Transparency and costs
Through many emails, meetings and conversations, the group has pushed FLIP to be clearer about their plans. The perception of a lack of transparency by the board, especially around funding, is deeply concerning to the group. They worry that unplanned-for and increasing costs will fall to taxpayers and the environmental cost of a water-consuming, energy-guzzling facility will be immense.
The murkiness around the cost of the pool has raised many questions. In June 2022, FLIP anticipated a roughly $300,000 yearly operating budget based on 2018 estimates. A year later, in 2023, it is around $750,000. [Ed.: Edited to clarify when cost estimates were made.]
“After nine years of planning a pool, why were they not divulging, or cognizant of, the high cost of running a pool?” Bill wondered. Although MacPherson has been adamant the pool will be solely privately funded, aided by tourists and summer residents who will flock there in warmer months, opponents question the truth of this, especially as operating costs balloon. “How much additional tax burden are the less affluent in the community able to shoulder?” Bill wonders.
The opponents, composed largely of people with environmental and farming interests, worry about the amount of water the pool will extract from shared aquifers. While the new design offers a 45% decrease in water usage, according to MacPherson, the pool will still need 330,000 gallons of water annually.
On Lopez, with an especially environmentally conscious population, many residents and organizations are aiming to produce net-zero emissions in coming decades. The electricity and propane consuming facility is an unnecessary carbon contributor and barrier to that goal, some believe.
‘Building … the community’s pool’
Bill said that the group is pleased by the board’s efforts to reconsider their design. “I applaud their efforts to reduce water and energy usage,” he wrote. However, opponents will continue to push for clarifications. “We’ve got a lot of questions regarding the pool project!” he wrote.
And there will likely be time for many, many more questions to be asked and answered. The date of permit approval is uncertain, and has left the board simply waiting and hoping. As far as breaking ground, “Our lesson learned is we can’t say,” said MacPherson.
While would-be island builders and business owners can continue to expect serious permitting delays, MacPherson remains hopeful. “We cannot control the permits but we can prepare for opening.” The board is already recruiting staff and lifeguards and beginning their search for human resources and accounting personnel.
It is the “passionate board that is still with us that has been instrumental,” said Macpherson, who also emphasized that she’d like to expand representation on the board, including more younger parents and diverse voices. We need “all voices together, working with us so we are building something that is the community’s pool.”
Also read: “Lopez pool plan is making waves,” Salish Current, Oct. 21, 2022.
— Reported by Kathryn Wheeler