Swimming After Gold or Plunging into Red Ink?

In 2016’s Laguna Beach Community Survey, respondents were asked to rate 21 different ‘perceived local problems’ in terms of seriousness. Respondents could select:

  • Extremely Serious
  • Very Serious
  • Somewhat Serious
  • Not too Serious
  • Don’t know

in response.  As you might imagine, issues such as traffic congestion on PCH & LCR, traffic congestion on local streets, number of homeless,  and insufficient public parking topped the rankings. For example, 71% of  respondents felt traffic congestion on PCH/LCR was an extremely or very serious problem.  At the 20th position (of 21) was the issue: “Lack of Recreation Facilities”.  This perceived local problem was seen as Extremely or Very serious by slightly less than 10% of respondents. 63% felt the issue was “Not too serious”.   Only “911 emergency response times” was seen as less problematic in the survey, with slightly less than 4% indicating this in the top 2 categories.* Given this statistically significant feedback, the impartial observer could not be blamed for being surprised at the passionate rhetoric being heard about the desperate need for a second public pool in Laguna Beach.

Is the Current LB High School Pool so Bad?

The current public-accessible pool is owned by the Laguna Beach High School, but maintenance costs are shared between the city and LBUSD, much like the Park Avenue tennis courts. According to the city’s website on the pool:

The Laguna Beach Community & High School Pool offers water polo and swim teams for kids of all ages, water aerobics classes, swim lessons for children of all abilities, and Masters’ swim programs. We also offer lap and recreational swim times every day. Laguna Beach High School also uses the pool for their swim and water polo team practices.

There are no doubt a varying community of users beyond the High School swim and water polo teams.  Indeed casual observation confirms that there is a lot of activity at the pool site (at least during the daylight hours when this author typically passes by). So, we have an existing pool that is well used, especially during the school year when LB sports teams are active.  Another common complaint about the existing pool is that is is not “Olympic” sized; to be sure the current pool allows only 25 yard(/meter?) lengths as opposed to the 50 meters of an Olympic pool. However, throughout the U.S., 25 meter length pools are the most common, so Laguna Beach isn’t a outlier in that regard.

Who is Promoting the Idea

With that background, we are wondering how the debate about a possible second public pool in Laguna Beach became so passionate.  Insofar as lack of a second public pool would fall into the “lack of recreation facilities” bucket, shouldn’t more local folks have indicated this as either Extremely Serious or at least, Very Serious on the Community Survey, if indeed it was a common sentiment?  Or are we witnessing an extremely vocal minority pushing for its pet project loudly and frequently whenever the opportunity arises?

An extensive search through City Council/LBUSD meeting documents shows that the topic of a “Potential for a second community pool” was agendized for the joint CC/LBUSD meeting held on 24Jan2017.  At that meeting, school board member Ketta Brown showed her support for the construction of a larger pool with the statement: “…glaring need in the City”.

Its likely that the very vocal and well organized group of “2nd pool boosters” who regularly attend City Council meetings and speak in favor of a 2nd community pool have built support via the Laguna Beach Unified School District board and have expanded their efforts at lobbying the City Council.  As early as February 2016, in response to 4 parents’ public comments in support of a second pool (Christine Kelleher, Susan Lewis, Richard & Eleanor Ramsey), Mr. Whalen voiced support for the concept.  Since then, City Council meetings have seen many speakers during the public comments period, speak in favor of a second pool.

Here Come The Consultants

Last February during the City Council’s mid-year budget update, item 17 read: “Lang Park Community Pool Geotechnical Environmental Investigation, Public Outreach – $80,000”.  This item was approved by all 5 council members.  Interestingly, this same vote also approved the additional funding for the (in)famous City Wayfinding Signage program in the amount of $300,000.  In the notes for the 19 funding items being considered was the rather matter-of-fact footnote that ultimately approving the project for the Lang Park Community Pool would require a 1-time set-aside of $15,000,000 (fifteen million dollars) to the Capital Improvement Fund.

The $80,000 appropriation followed an initial $15,000 spent on a consultancy to locate an ideal spot for a second pool. The other guidelines that were provided by the City to the consultancy were:

  • Constructing a 33 meter by 25 yard pool(!!!)
  • Adjacent teaching pool
  • 100-space parking deck (assumes multiple-level)
  • Project should not impact existing major features, including playground, tennis & basketball courts and community center

It is unclear whether the potential of locating the facility at Lang Park was suggested as a starting point, or whether the consultancy was allowed to explore all possible sites within the city.  Please note the 1st bullet point; the proposed second public pool will not be Olympic-sized according to these guidelines. So, for those advocating the second pool because of this feature, they appear to be misinformed. As best we can determine, this second proposed pool will be similar in size to the existing pool.

Public Pool Resources Elsewhere in OC

LagunaBeachCHAT investigated the current public pool resources in all 34 cities in Orange County last January, when we first started seeing the repeated comments in favor of a second pool during city council public comments. We felt that by analyzing the number of public-accessible pools elsewhere, we might better understand the real needs of our community.  What we found was:

  • Locating information on public-accessible pool resources throughout the 34 cities in OC was exceedingly difficult
  • Number of public-accessible pool resources is a poor metric; public-accessible pool hours is better but very hard to determine
  • Public-accessible pool resources differ; some are not suitable for activities such as team water polo or even lap swimming

So, take these caveats to heart when you review the data. Here is what we found.  Population data is based on the 2010 US census (some cities provided 2015 updates, and when available, these numbers were used):


We thought we would find a moderate positive correlation between city population and number of public-accessible pool resources. It turns out that there is only a very weak positive correlation, which means that other factors are in play (accepting of course, that correlation is never causation).  If population size isn’t significantly correlated to increased numbers of public-accessible pools, what might be at play?

Critical Mass

Looking at the spreadsheet data, the City of Placentia stands out for its 4 public-accessible pools (2 public sites and 2 High School sites).  This for a city with roughly twice the population of Laguna Beach.  Many folks will recall that one of the best female swimmers of her generation, Janet Evans, grew up in Placentia and nearby Fullerton, CA.  She started competing in school events including El Dorado High School in Placentia, CA. Evans was a world champion and world record-holder in distance free-style swimming, and won a total of four gold medals at the 1988 and the 1992 Olympics. Many of her long-distance world records stood for nearly 20 years. Currently the Swim Team of Placentia, which is affiliated with USA Swimming operates out of one of the Placentia facilities.  What we take away from the example of Janet Evans is that ample opportunities for swimming activities during her youth helped her hone her natural abilities, to ultimately become a champion.  We believe that her astonishing success built enthusiasm and support for swimming endeavors in Placentia that helped to create a critical mass of talent, coaching, facilities and funding to that city.

Laguna Beach has also seen its sons and daughters succeed on the international stage in various sporting events.  The remarkable water polo achievements of the Makenzie sisters in the 2016 Olympics and World Championships as well those of Annika Dries (2012) have helped to build enthusiasm for the sport.  The city also has its share of Olympic and world champion volleyball players.  If any of these champions come to dominate their respective sports we could expect residents’ support and enthusiasm levels to continue to grow.  With this growth, Laguna Beach might eventually see a critical mass of factors coalesce, resulting in momentum towards building a ‘sports dynasty’ to replicate its past sporting success.  It is reasonable to expect that with additional public/private funding for improved coaching and facilities, Laguna Beach would improve the rankings of its various sports teams.

Dollars and Cents

Pools are expensive to build, but also very costly to maintain.  When this author lived in a condo with a pool only in operation from Memorial Day to Labor Day (3+ months), the operational costs of the pool were among the top-5 annual expenditures of the HOA.  Its unlikely that any public pool can operate on the income generated by admissions fees alone. They will always require tax-dollars/additional funding for operations, let alone to service any debt that might be incurred for construction. And that is the core issue for Laguna Beach tax payers to consider.  The debt placed upon local tax payers to service the bonds that would have to be issued for construction, will be significant. Together with the low priority that the vast majority of LB residents place on a second public-accessible pool (as extrapolated from the LB Community Survey responses), it is questionable whether public financing is justifiable.  Indeed, given the many other infrastructure priorities that the Community Survey revealed, a publicly financed second public-accessible pool would likely fail a popular vote.

Others have suggested that a way forward would be for a public/private partnership.  Indeed, LagunaBeachCHAT is amenable to exploring such a possibility. Perhaps the city could provide the land necessary for a second public-accessible pool. Through is contribution of land (a significant contribution, to be sure), Laguna Beach residents would be offered ‘resident’ entry fees. But to be clear, we feel that the funding for construction as well as the substantial ongoing operations would have to be financed privately.  Those seeking to establish a Laguna Beach water polo dynasty need to seek private sources to fund their plans. Tax payers are already paying the costs of the existing High School pool; its unreasonable to expect them to carry the burden for a second facility.

*A total of 543 responses were received from 6000 residents whose email addresses were available from voter registration files and commercial lists. With this number of respondents, there is an overall margin of error of +- 4.2% and a confidence interval of 95%.