|By Jake Spring, The Sun News, Myrtle
Beach, S.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
October 24, 2010 - --Snowbirds can be particular about their pools.
"I got a lady that will carry a thermometer around, and she'll take the temperature of the pool, and she'll take the temperature of the hot tub and take the temperature of the [lazy river]," said Jason Morgan, general manager of Paradise Resort. "And if it's not 88 degrees, she'll tell us."
So when the Federal Emergency Management Agency begins enforcing a federal ban on certain pool enclosures on Nov. 1, Morgan will have no choice but to comply rather than leave his winter guests in the cold, he said. The enclosures are mostly used to in the winter to shelter pools that are otherwise outdoors.
"If the enclosure didn't go up, [the snowbirds] would be upset," Morgan said.
Federal law prohibits communities in the National Flood Insurance Program from using hard-structure pool enclosures -- often made of glass -- in the floodplain. Myrtle Beach hotels have been using such enclosures for more than 30 years, but FEMA did not raise safety concerns until 2007.
The city began conducting inspections last week to ensure that hotels comply by a Nov. 1 deadline set by FEMA and has already changed its ordinances to reflect the regulations. Hotels like the Paradise Resort must pay for vinyl or Plexiglas enclosures or risk being sued by the city. More than 30 hotels use the structures.
Officials and hoteliers had hoped that Congress would pass a law allowing the enclosures, but with the legislature in recess, such a law won't come in time for the FEMA deadline.
"We recognize that there won't be a legislative cure this fall in all likelihood, so we are prepared to enforce city ordinances and [the federal] regulations by the Nov. 1 deadline, and we'll take the necessary legal action to make that happen," city spokesman Mark Kruea said.
FEMA officials discovered the enclosures when it made a routine visit to Myrtle Beach in May 2007 to review the city's developments in the flood zone, according to a written statement from FEMA released in July. The agency then informed the city that it was not complying with the regulation. FEMA did not state why it had not previously raised the issue.
"Both our many years of experience and building science prove that lives can be saved and damage can be reduced when floodplain management is enforced by local jurisdictions," FEMA spokeswoman Jody Cottrill said in a written statement Friday.
Over the next three years, Myrtle Beach business leaders lobbied Congress to change the law and allow the enclosures.
The city was close to succeeding earlier this year after the House of Representatives passed a bill to permit the enclosures. The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce held an event in July just after the bill's passage, and officials said they were confident the Senate would also pass it before the November deadline.
But the Senate had not passed the bill by late September when Congress adjourned. The legislature will not meet again until after elections, too late to pass the bill ahead of FEMA's deadline.
"Nobody is terribly happy about this, and we will still hope for a cure down the road, but that's not going to happen this fall," Kruea said.
The city has already amended its ordinances to comply with federal regulations and is prepared to enforce the ordinances by the deadline, Kruea said. Myrtle Beach will take legal action against any properties that do not comply, he said.
The city's Construction Services Department began checking local hotels for compliance last week and will continue doing checks until all hotels are in line with regulations, director Bruce Boulineau said. Many of the enclosures are temporary and haven't been put up yet, so his staff will continue to check hotels as winter approaches and the enclosures are set up, he said.
Inspectors will go to the hotels unannounced and conduct the visual checks, Boulineau said. The city will file lawsuits against hotels that do not comply.
"They got a letter from us saying we would start our action by Nov. 1 if they have not complied," Boulineau said. "That's the last letter they'll get from us. The next one will be when a lawsuit is filed."
FEMA does not plan a follow-up visit to check for compliance, Cottrill said.
"It is the community's responsibility to manage and ensure compliance with National Flood Insurance Program regulations," she said.
Fixing the problem
A year before FEMA's inspections, the Holiday Sands South opened a condo property next to its hotel and, in the process, bought a temporary, glass enclosure for the pool area, general manager John Lucas said.
"It's expensive in the fact that in our particular case we were OK to put glass enclosures in about 4 years ago and of course we put in the best possible glass you could put in," Lucas said. "And now we have to turn around and we're spending thousands and thousands of dollars to put vinyl in and now this hurricane-rated glass sits in a storage room."
A new enclosure will cost Paradise Resort about $7,500, Morgan said.
"We could certainly do without shelling out $7,500 when we have a perfectly good structure that could go up," he said.
The guests likely won't notice any difference in the pool area with the new enclosures, Morgan said.
Lucas said Holiday Sands doesn't have any choice but to buy a new enclosure because the pools are essential to winter business.
"You have to if you want to extend your tourist season. You've got to be able to use indoor pools and lazy rivers," he said. "If we didn't have them enclosed, chances are [tourists] would go on to Florida."
Holiday Sands doesn't install the enclosure until late November after hurricane season has passed, so Lucas said he doesn't understand why it would be a safety issue. But he said he doesn't blame the city government, which is only doing what it must under federal rules.
Not giving up yet
Hotelier Frans Mustert says he will continue to hold out for a legislative fix. The regulation will affect three hotels managed by Oceana Resorts, where Mustert is president and chief executive. Two of the hotels -- Camelot By The Sea and the Anderson Ocean Club -- will hold off on putting up their enclosures, he said. The Patricia Grand will replace its permanent glass enclosure, but it will be a cheap fix that won't look good, he said.
Congress is expected to return to Washington on Nov. 15. Mustert is confident the Senate will pass the bill by next year.
"It will pass next year," Mustert said. "Why enforce something this year if in three to four months there will be a legislative fix?"
Safety is not an issue because hotels only put up the enclosures in late November, after hurricane season has been ended, he said. Although fixing the existing enclosures isn't expensive, Mustert said that using vinyl or Plexiglas is "not high class," he said.
"It's unbelievable our government agencies can't be more reasonable," he said.
Contact JAKE SPRING at 626-0310.
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