By Ken Kobayashi, ADVERTISER STAFF WRITER
A state judge delivered a potentially crippling blow yesterday to the city’s plan to renovate the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium by declaring that the facility falls under regulations governing swimming pools and must obtain a state permit.
City and state lawyers had argued that the regulations covering freshwater pools were never intended to cover the Natatorium, which is designed to allow ocean water to flow through its pool.
But Circuit Judge Gail Nakatani ruled that the facility will be a public swimming pool and falls under the regulations governing pool health and safety.
“The Department of Health should and must be the designated watch guard over the health and safety of pools in this state for all of our protection,” the judge said.
The decision is the latest snarl in the long-standing controversy over whether the city should spend $10.8 million to renovate the shoreline facility. But it won’t be the final word.
Mayor Jeremy Harris and city lawyers said they would appeal the decision. They said construction will begin this month as scheduled on nonpool renovations, such as restoring bleachers and the memorial arch and installing restrooms.
Harris called the decision “ludicrous.” “It makes no sense,” he said. “We’ll have to chlorinate the whole ocean.”
But James Bickerton, lawyer for the Kaimana Beach Coalition, which filed the lawsuit challenging the renovations, said he would ask for a court order to halt renovation work.
He said the city obtained a shoreline permit that says the renovations comply with all state regulations. Until they get the pool permit, the city won’t be able to work on any part of the project, he said.
“We’re really hoping the city will see the light and turn it into a beach.”
The Natatorium was built in 1927 as a memorial to World War I veterans, but was closed in 1979 for safety reasons. In a 6-3 vote, the City Council last year approved the plans to renovate it.
The Kaimana Beach Coalition believes the money can be better spent by restoring the memorial arch, but eliminating the bleachers and the makai wall. Bickerton said the plan would create another 100 yards of beach in Waikiki that would be worth about $50 million.
All sides agreed that the Natatorium wouldn’t be able to meet the requirements for a pool permit. Those include a limit to the level of staph bacteria and water clear enough so that an 8-inch black disc at the bottom of the pool is visible from the surface. The requirement for water clarity is so lifeguards could see a swimmer under the water.
But the city proceeded without a pool permit by relying on an opinion from the attorney general’s office last year that the Natatorium doesn’t fall under state pool regulations.
City Corporation Counsel David Arakawa said the city will work with the Department of Health in developing new rules for a salt-water facility. He said he believes the city will be able to obtain a permit.
The renovations were scheduled to be completed within 16 months, city officials said. But it may take a year to come up with new rules for the city to obtain a permit.
Health Department director Bruce Anderson said he’ll appoint an advisory committee of water-quality experts to recommend rules governing salt-water facilities. The new rules would have to go through public hearings, and it could take six months to a year before they are adopted, he said.
Anderson had maintained that the Natatorium fell under the pool regulations, but deferred to the attorney general’s opinion.
“We’re pleased the judge has recognized the need to protect the health and safety of the public in this decision,” he said. “It’s unfortunate we don’t have rules in place today that govern the quality of water in a salt-water pool.”
Nancy Bannick, vice president of the Friends of the Natatorium, said she was disappointed by the judge’s ruling. The nonprofit Friends group was formed in 1986 to preserve and restore the Natatorium.
“I’m convinced that it’s going to be perfectly safe. People swam there for years even when it was in bad shape and didn’t have good water quality, and most people didn’t get hurt by it at all,” Bannick said.
Above: Construction is scheduled to start this month at the Natatorium, including restoration of the bleachers.
Below: The Natatorium was built in 1927 in honor of World War l veterans. It was closed in 1979 for safety reasons, and last year the City Council voted to reopen it.
Photos by JEFF WIDENER THE HONOLULU ADVERTISER