By Bill Kirk
---- — Pomps Pond celebrated a milestone this summer — 90 years of public swimming, as of Aug. 1.
But this year, the pond became a victim of its own success — and longevity — as lifeguards and staff members were overwhelmed by crowds of people from all over the Merrimack Valley seeking to escape the oppressive mid-July heat.
At first, town officials tried dealing with the large crowds by banning out-of-towners from the beach, located off Abbot Street.
But as outlined in a story in The Eagle-Tribune and later in the Andover Townsman, the decision violated the provisions of a 1974 federal grant used to build the bathhouse and snack bar. So the town changed course, overturned the ban on non-residents, and decided instead to simply limit the number of people entering the facility on hot days.
Town Manager Buzz Stapczynski said he spoke with someone at the Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs who shed light on the federal grant.
“We opened it up a few days after we spoke with her,” Stapczynski said.
Now, town officials, including Mary Montbleau, director of community services, and Kim Stamas, recreation coordinator, will use the off-season to review the policies at Pomps Pond and put a plan in place for next season, Stapczynski said.
“We will open it to the public, but there will be controls as far as the number of individuals allowed in at any one time,” he said. “We have to control it for public safety purposes.”
Pomps Pond closed to beach-goers for the season this past Sunday, although organized activities, including a stand-up paddleboard class, a fishing workshop and volleyball program, are continuing through the rest of this week.
Montbleau said that other than the controversy over who could swim at the pond — and the tornado warnings that swept through town in early July — the summer season at Pomps Pond was a success. But the crowds that sought refuge from the heat did present their share of challenges, she said.
Montbleau said that when Pomps Pond first opened to the public in 1923, it cost $2,000 to operate for that initial month of August. In comparison, just one week at the pond this summer cost the town an average of $5,000 for lifeguards.
That translates into roughly $40,000 for lifeguards for the eight-week season, which started June 22.
Despite the presence of more than a dozen lifeguards stationed at the pond on a typical week, Montbleau said the crowds this summer were more than the staff could handle, leading to safety concerns.
She estimated that at the peak, there may have been about 500 people at the beach on busy days. That takes into account both residents and non-residents as well as children involved in organized activities such as Beach Buddies and other recreational groups.
Over the winter months, new policies for Pomps Pond will be spelled out more clearly, Montbleau said. That will likely mean the removal of the built-in grills at the pond.
“There will be no grilling. That was a problem for us,” she said. “People can either pack in a picnic lunch or purchase something at the concession stand.”
Fees may also need to go up next year.
“That will all be considered before” next summer, she said.
The town this year sold 340 season passes, which range in price from $40 for senior citizens to $100, as well as $9,000 worth of day passes, used mostly by non-residents.
Montbleau said one thing that might help would be if the state reopened Berry Pond, located in Harold Parker State Forest. The pond has been closed to swimming for several years because the state has been unable to afford to hire lifeguards.
Selectmen defended the decision by Stapczynski and the recreation staff to close the pond to non-residents at peak periods this summer.
“There was a lot of discussion about how to ensure the safety of the individuals there,” Selectman Dan Kowalski said. “With the volume of people, I wouldn’t want to be one of the lifeguards. I’m glad something was done.”
He said he was optimistic town officials could come up with a plan for next year.
“They’ll have to limit the number of swimmers for the volume of lifeguards,” he said.
Selectmen Chairman Alex Vispoli agreed.
“Buzz was faced with a critical situation and something had to be done at that time,” he said. “But based on the requirements of the grant, he had to come up with another approach that was in compliance with the grant.
“It will have to be open to everybody, residents or non-residents, but there will be a limit on the sheer number of people.”