Pediatricians in Charlottetown, P.E.I., are speaking out against a proposed bylaw amendment that could see hard top pool covers used in place of an enclosure or fence within the city.
Charlottetown's current bylaw requires a swimming pool to be completely surrounded by a fence or structure that is at least 1.8 metres high.
The proposed amendment would allow property owners to waive the fencing requirement if they have a certified pool cover, but the suggestion has left the city's pediatricians "shocked and dismayed."
"We're very concerned that the proposed bylaw amendment will increase the risk of children drowning in our community," said Dr. Peter MacPherson, one of seven doctors to speak out against the possible change.
"We have all borne witness to tragedy. We have seen unexpected and unintentional deaths resulting from injury. We have told parents that their child is dead and never coming home. And no parent, no family would ever want to have this experience.
"Where we have an opportunity to promote pool safety and prevent drownings from ever happening, that's obviously the best solution," said MacPherson.
Ongoing discussion at council level
The issue was first raised in 2020 when a property owner submitted a request to have the bylaw changed. Since then, Coun. Terry MacLeod said there has been a handful of other residents interested in installing a hard-topped cover instead of a pool fence.
"The planning staff have been working quite diligently at this. We've looked around other parts of Canada and municipalities," said MacLeod.
"The province is really, you know, they're the ones who set the standards, right? The city doesn't set standards … we have bylaws that'll fall within those standards. The province, when asked, were not interested in getting involved."
At a meeting on July 11, city council voted unanimously to send the issue to a public consultation.
"There's a lot more to it than what we first anticipated," MacLeod told CBC News on Monday, adding that it was first thought to be a simple bylaw change.
"The first stumbling block would be the standardization of, well, what kind of cover would it be? What standards are involved? You'd have such questions as who would be the installer? Who would be the building inspector? You know, they wouldn't be capable of inspecting that type of device.
"Then there's the whole legal side."
Concerns 'weigh heavily' on council
But to pediatricians who say the proposed change opens up huge risks, the legal concerns are not as pressing.
If you can afford an in-ground pool, you can afford a fence. — Dr. Peter MacPherson
"They talk about indemnity agreements and liability, and I think that recognizes that there is a risk of children drowning with this change. I think the best solution isn't to try to shift responsibility from the city to a homeowner," MacPherson said.
"I don't think we ought to be most worried about what legal recourse bereaved parents may have against whom. I think we should just minimize the risk of children drowning in our community."
The doctors said that while hard-top pool covers offer good protection, it should be in addition to a four-sided fence with a self-closing, self-locking gate, in order to protect children, particularly those under the age of four.
MacPherson uses the example of a family opening the pool cover in the morning and then eventually wandering inside to attend to the home or get a snack.
"Then the two or three year old from next door wanders over and drowns," he said.
"All children have a right to protection from injury, and that pool safety should take priority over any other considerations, whether that be costs, landscaping, aesthetics," said MacPherson. "If you can afford an in-ground pool, you can afford a fence. If you don't like the look of a fence, don't get a pool."
Dr. Jill Borland Starkes is one of the other doctors to speak out against the removing the fencing requirement. She said she has dealt with children and families affected by drowning tragedies.
"It concerned me that we were considering something that was not based on scientific evidence or recommendations related to injury prevention, but something such as aesthetics or cost," said Borland Starkes.
"We are worried that a small group of homeowners or commercial interests might be impacting council's decision to rescind the previous bylaw. We would rather that city council look to the experts in this area."
Dr. Borland Starkes wants the council to look to the Lifesaving Society — that has already said it does not support the proposal — and Parachute Canada — which also recommends the four-sided fence and self-latching gates.
The doctors said their group will be present at the upcoming public consultation on July 26.
Coun. MacLeod said the opinion of the pediatricians will likely "weigh heavily" on council when making their decision.
"Anytime you have safety concerns, you know, you have to pay attention to that," he said.
The proposal will return to the planning board and council for a final decision after the public consultation.