Florida Keys News
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
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Hotels hoping for another pool-lift deadline

U.S. hotel and guesthouse owners are hoping for another reprieve from a looming deadline that requires all lodging properties to install permanent lifts at all pools and spas for people with disabilities.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) issued the mandate in 2010, but when faced with questions and concerns from lodging industry officials, extended the deadline for compliance from March 15 to Monday.

Some legislators have been working with the lodging industry to seek an additional extension, further clarifications and a "more reasonable" approach to the mandate.

"There have been a number of pieces of legislation for extensions that have passed one side, but not the other," said Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys & Key West, who has been closely watching the work of the American Hotel & Lodging Association with regard to the mandate.

"It's not that anybody doesn't want to comply, but everyone is concerned with the requirement of permanently placed lifts," Weinhofer said. "The whole intent is excellent, but there are concerns about it being one more hazard that other guests could trip over at night, or for kids playing on it during the day. But I think between now and the 21st, we'll have some additional clarifications."

Weinhofer acknowledged that people with disabilities could argue against an extension, saying the hotel industry has had a year and a half to comply with the pool lift requirements, "but everyone needed clarification and the DOJ didn't issue that until the very last minute in February, which I think prompted the extension until May 21."

She also pointed out the differences between a five-room guesthouse in Key West and a 300-room hotel.

"Some of the smaller properties don't have the required amount of deck space for a permanent lift," she said. "I think the industry wants to comply as long as it's reasonable."

The national lodging association has petitioned the DOJ to allow portable pool lifts that can be installed when needed and stored when not needed. It's a solution that Key West hotelier Kate Miano would find more reasonable than the current requirements.

Miano owns The Gardens Hotel, an 18-room boutique hotel on a historic property on Angela Street. Miano said in February she would have to fill in her hot tub and use it as a planter if a permanent lift is required. As for the pool, a permanent lift would require her to remove centuries-old bricks that surround the pool area and would pose "a hazard to other guests returning to their rooms at night after having a few too many cocktails on Duval Street."

Miano said in eight years, she has had only one request for a handicapped-accessible room. If the situation arises again, she would ensure that her staff installed the portable pool lift before the disabled guest arrived and leave it in place for the duration of their stay.

Miano has a permanent lift on order, but has not finalized it yet, as she is waiting to see what happens Monday.

"I am happy to comply and accommodate guests with disabilities, but we also have to consider how these requirements will affect the rest of my guests," she said.

Weinhofer said that some property owners are afraid they will have to close their pools in the summer months if the DOJ decides to begin enforcement inspections of pool lifts.

"The fines for noncompliance are steep," she said, adding that they're in the tens of thousands of dollars. "Some properties are afraid they'll have to close their pools to everyone to avoid the fines.

"Right now, it's still a day-to-day issue that we're following at the national level," Weinhofer said, hoping for more clarity and reason by the Monday deadline.

For more information, visit ahla.com.

mmiles@keysnews.com

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