Myrtle Beach hotels not rushing to use certain pool enclosures after long battle with federal regulators

dbryant@thesunnews.comFebruary 2, 2013 

— The type of hotel pool enclosures local leaders fought federal regulators to keep using have not returned this winter as expected after the years-long, costly battle ended last year.

No hotels in Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach or Horry County have received permits to put up the structures, which was a common practice for more than 30 years to make outdoor pools usable during the winter, at least until federal regulators cracked down on them six years ago, saying they could become flying hazards during a storm.

Most of the hotels that were affected didn’t wait for the battle to be settled out of fear they would lose winter business. Many of them switched to approved ways to enclose their pools while the debate lingered, and put them up again this winter.

“There were just a handful of properties that had not found an alternate solution,” Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea said. “It’s a good change but because the discussion dragged on so long, some of the hotels went ahead and spent the money” to buy soft-sided structures to enclose their pools.

This was the first winter since 2007 that hotels in the floodplain could use the hard-structure enclosures. After years of debate, lawsuits and thousands in lobbying dollars, the new federal rules that allow the hard structures went into effect in July. Now, the enclosures can go up, but not during hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30.

Ocean Reef is one of the hotels that switched to soft enclosures as soon as the debate emerged, afraid it would lose winter business if it didn’t, said Jennifer Stahler, the 325-room resort’s general manager.

“We didn’t wait,” she said. “We would lose too many guests in the winter to not have any enclosures at all.”

The resort put up the plastic ones again for this winter, though the hard-structure enclosures are still in storage and might be used for future winters, Stahler said. Guests are satisfied as long as they can use the pool -- regardless of whether it is closed in using a soft or hard structure, she said.

“The soft ones work great,” Stahler said. “[Guests] haven’t noticed a difference at all.”

The Palace Resort, managed by Premier Management Group, lost business during previous winters because it couldn’t close in its pool, officials said this summer. But the property wasn’t able to put up the enclosures this year because the pool area is being upgraded, according to Premier.

The cost in this down economy might also be keeping the hard-structure enclosures from going up, said Pat Dowling, spokesman for North Myrtle Beach, which hasn’t issued any permits for them this winter. To get a permit for hard-structure enclosures in North Myrtle Beach, a property must submit certified engineering drawings and other details.

“There are costs involved in accomplishing certified design and engineering drawings for hard-structures, and then there is the expense of putting them up, taking them down, storing them and going through the process all over again the following year,” Dowling said in an email. “In this economy, that investment might be too risky.”

Some hotels had used the hard structures for 30 years before the Federal Emergency Management Agency noticed them in 2007 when in town on other business. The agency said the enclosures could become flying hazards if a storm hit the coast and said hotels had to stop using them, or Myrtle Beach could risk losing its eligibility for the National Flood Insurance Program.

Hotels insisted the enclosures were safe and crucial for winter business.

A battle ensued, which led to years of debate and thousands in lobbying dollars, with the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce estimating in 2010 that it had spent $80,000 trying to change the law, including 44 trips to Washington, D.C., and FEMA’s offices in Atlanta meeting with officials and politicians. Myrtle Beach filed lawsuits in 2010 against 11 hotels forcing them to comply so the city didn’t lose its eligibility in the flood insurance program.

Tourism leaders don’t regret the battle even though hotels aren’t flocking to use the once-banned structures.

“It definitely was worth the fight,” said Stephen Greene, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Hospitality Association. “A number of them changed what they were using because they needed to utilize their pools.”

Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at dbryant@thesunnews.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.

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