Making Waves, the Washington hot tub company that weathered rough seas before opening a franchise last fall in College Park, is back in troubled waters.
The tubbers have Annapolis Alderman Gill Cochran and some of his downtown constituents steaming about a plan to remodel the derelict Salvation Army building near City Dock into a spa.
Cochran likens the issue to the crusade that started him in politics eight years ago, when he and other downtown preservationists dumped a Ronald McDonald lookalike into Spa Creek on the way to barring the hamburger chain from opening a franchise in the historic section.
"I'm fighting the 'boardwalking' of Annapolis," said the bearded Cochran, a lawyer. "What do public baths, which purportedly would stay open until 2 a.m., have to offer my constituents? Who is up at 2 a.m.? I'm certainly not."
He added, "Why should my historic district, with its sensitive zoning, be the city's bathroom?"
Cochran opened his drive against Making Waves earlier this month after the company won formal approval for its facade plans and, the company says, informal approval of its building plans from city officials.
Cochran said he didn't even know until then that hot tubs were coming. His late entry infuriated Making Waves general manager Dennis Fincham, who said the company had been working with city officials for two months without a hitch until the alderman stepped in.
"We filed all the appropriate papers to the appropriate authorities," said Fincham. "I didn't know it was up to us to invite Mr. Cochran to pay attention to what goes on in his own district."
Fincham and Gary Schwerzler, an Annapolis architect who helped plan the new spa, said they were advised in mid-July by zoning officials that building plans had been approved.
But Fincham said when he sent someone to pick up the permits on July 19 she got instead a letter dated July 18, seeking more information on how hot tubs "contribute to the systematic care and development of physique or to a state of physical well-being" before a permit would be issued.
Cochran freely admits it was he who howled to city officials after he found out about the tub plan. He said Making Waves' contention that it is a physical culture/health facility, as permitted under zoning regulations, is a hoax. "The hot tubs of the '80s are the massage parlors of the '70s," he said.
But Cochran said moral issues in the case are secondary to zoning issues. "I refuse to make this a Moral Majority issue," he said. "I don't want to sing 'Onward Christian Soldiers' and join the ministers trying to stop the hot tubs from coming into College Park.
"My contention," he said, "is that hot tubs arguably fall under the same zoning classification as massage parlors, which were deleted from the health/physical culture zoning classification in 1974 by the City Council."
Cochran said he doesn't like the feeling that hot tubs are being rammed through by outsiders, either. "One doesn't come in and tell Annapolis what they're going to do," he said. "When a new business wants to come to town, generally their lawyers will bring the owners into town to meet officials and residents and explain. That's the way bloodbaths can be avoided."
But Fincham said Making Waves officals "didn't even know Mr. Cochran walked the earth until July 19, and as soon as we did we got letters out to him."
He said Making Waves, with shops in downtown Washington, Georgetown and College Park, one opening in Marlow Heights and new facilities slated for New York, Chicago and Minneapolis, is accustomed to dealing formally with local officials.
He said that in Annapolis, "I was told the procedures and operated on the schedule given me by local officials," he said. "I didn't know I had to personally acquiesce to Mr. Cochran's whims."
Making Waves' owners said hot tubs are indeed health and physical-fitness facilities, and they would send the requested documentation on the health benefits to zoning officials. Sources expect the building permit to be issued this week, but that won't end the fight.
Chuck Walsh, a Washington lawyer, and other Ward 1 residents are expected to appeal the zoning classification, which Making Waves coowner Matthew Bogin, a lawyer, said they can't legally do.
And Cochran said he will propose to his City Council colleagues hot tub licensing stipulations, one of which would require a lifeguard in each tub room.