Pool covers not a good substitute
The Scandia Planning Commission voted unanimously on May 7 to recommend no change to the city’s ordinance requiring that swimming pools be fenced.
In March, residents Jeff and Bea Melby paid $500 to request that the city amend the development code to allow an automatic pool cover in place of a fence.
At the April 2 meeting the planning commission heard the Melbys explain that a fence that uses the house as one boundary does not protect children in the house from entering the pool. A pool cover would.
The commission asked for more information and continued the discussion at the May 7 meeting.
Some cities allow a certain type of pool cover instead of a fence, and some let the city’s building official decide on a case-by-case basis.
The commissioners agreed that a fence is inadequate protection for family members and visitors to the house, and works mainly to keep strangers and wildlife away. They cited a drowning statistic that says only 2 percent of toddlers who drown in a pool wandered in; the rest either live at the house or are guests there.
“When we require the fence, we’re protecting those 2 percent,” Commissioner Steve Philippi said. “If the fence is attached to the house, it does not protect the other 98 percent.”
Resident Wayne Moe recommended that pool owners who have a house wall as part of the barrier should put alarms on the doors or add a safety pool cover. The fact that most drownings happen to family members or guests shows that “pool fences are doing their job of keeping strangers out,” he said.
Automatic covers can cost up to $15,000. The fabric deteriorates over time and is expensive to replace.
Forest Lake Building Official Keith Wille, who also serves Scandia in that role, said the city of Forest Lake lets him make the judgment.
If the pool cover meets ASTM standards, he’s comfortable allowing it instead of a fence, he said, but this is rare. “In 40 years I’ve approved only one. Not more than four or five have requested it, because of cost.”
Even if a pool cover effectively keeps people out, holds their weight when they walk on it, does not collect rainwater and can be closed manually in case of power outage, a person must remember to close it.
Commission Chair Christine Maefsky said the system fails if teens don’t bother to put the cover on, or if parents go in the house and forget to close the pool.
“A self-latching gate will take care of itself,” she said.
The group also noted that fences can be repaired without hiring a specialist.
To protect potential victims — residents and their guests, plus strangers and wildlife — a city could require both a fence and a pool cover. Maefsky said that solution would be prohibitively expensive.
Commissioner Peter Schwarz said the current ordinance was based on a detailed discussion in 2007 that concluded “a cover by itself is not safe.” Schwarz said parents are responsible for protecting their children, and added, “A fence is not 100 percent guaranteed, but it is still better than a cover.”
The commission did not address the safety of landscape water features, such as ponds and waterfalls, which currently do not require fencing in Scandia.
In a 4-1 vote, the commission recommended approval of a variance for Matt and Jennifer Olson, 14790 Scandia Trail N. (TH-97).
The Olsons have a house and garage on 0.82 acres, just west of Leroux’s All Season Lawn & Sports. They would like to double the size of their 24-by-24-foot garage to store snowmobiles, lawn mowers, a four-wheeler and kids’ toys to protect them from the weather and to prevent clutter.
“It will look better to store things inside,” Matt Olson said at the meeting.
In the Village Mixed Use B zone, the development code allows one accessory structure with a total area of 720 square feet on lots less than 1 acre. The Olsons want to expand their garage from 576 square feet to 1,152 square feet.
City Planner Sherri Buss said the lot is bordered by a business on one side, “almost a berm” on the other side, and in back an empty land-locked lot. A larger garage would not affect neighbors’ views or be visible from the road.
No neighbors spoke at the public hearing.
Schwarz disagreed with the planner’s conclusion that the difficulties were not caused by the landowner, which is one requirement for granting a variance.
“There are no difficulties,” Schwarz said. “The owner has too many toys.”
Commissioners Christine Maefsky and Jan Hogle argued that the house is modest in size, only 10 percent of the lot would be covered with impervious materials, the neighbors would be unaffected and preventing clutter is good.
Philippi noted that Scandia’s formulas limiting building sizes are probably not current with today’s lifestyles.
The motion passed with the condition that the Olsons give up the right to build a second 120-square-feet accessory building that normally would be allowed.
Schwarz cast the only no vote.
The variance request will go before the council on May 21.
The Planning Commission continued its discussion on allowing for-profit events on private land in noncommercial zones.
Resident Syd Stephan, who would like to host weddings and similar events on his property on Meadowbrook Avenue, was present at the meeting. Sue Bies, his neighbor who has expressed opposition, now sits on the Planning Commission.
Three options were considered:
–Revising the existing special events ordinance to include private events.
–Modifying the development code provisions on resorts and conference facilities.
–Adding event facilities as a new use in the development code.
At the next meeting, on June 4, the Planning Commission will explore further the third option, allowing an interim use permit for events in the agricultural core and general rural zones. Residents are encouraged to attend.