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February 16, 2003

New access board faces uphill battle

From: Enterprise-Record, CA - 16 Feb 2003

By GREG WELTER - Staff Writer

PARADISE - An uphill battle looms - literally - for a board that must determine how disabled access rules apply in the town's public buildings.

"The natural setting we love in Paradise is a big part of the access problem - everything is on a hill," said Susan Gardner, a business law professor at Chico State University named to the Access Board of Appeals Tuesday.

As the town launches two ambitious programs - downtown revitalization and a redevelopment agency - new and remodeled commercial projects are expected to increase dramatically.

Paradise experienced near-record commercial activity last year.

As the town completes infrastructure improvements, businesses are expected to follow.

Paradise must strictly adhere to Americans with Disabilities Act requirements for any work it does on town-controlled property, be it streets, parks or municipal buildings.

Private contractors are subject to the law as well, but Gardner said there's a lot of room for interpretation in ADA statutes.

In an attempt to bring projects in under budget, building owners and contractors may question ADA codes, which are often expensive to meet.

"Money is never a good excuse," said Paradise architect David Anderson, also named to the board. "Design is really the issue about 90 percent of the time."

In Paradise, Anderson expects that hills and uneven surfaces will pose the greatest obstacle to meeting access requirements. "The hills are an obvious problem - the access from the curb or parking lot to the building are likely to become issues," he said. "Once someone's in the building, access is much less of a problem."

He pointed out that ramps in Paradise may only slope one foot for every 12 feet of distance. "That's not a lot, especially when you have a hill to negotiate."

Anderson, who holds a degree in architecture from the University of North Carolina, worked extensively in San Francisco on ADA retrofits. It's rare, he said, that contractors walk away free and clear when access requirements are disputed. "It's all about negotiating a middle point, a compromise everyone can agree to."

Anderson and Gardner, who is disabled, will be joined by Donna Nichols, a Paradise school board trustee who uses a wheelchair. Also named to the board were Councilman Ray Dalton, a school facilities inspector for the state, and John Randall, a local contractor and business associate of Anderson.

Anderson said it's unlikely he and Randall will face a conflict of interest, though they have worked together on several projects.

"If we have to excuse ourselves from a case, we will," he said.

In spite of two members with a personal interest in disabled access, Anderson believes the board can keep emotions out of their decisions.

"It will be up to us to sort out the 'can't do' appeals from 'don't want to do' appeals," Anderson said.

He further noted that access issues aren't limited to the mobility impaired.

"We may face issues affecting the visually and hearing impaired as well."

Gardner said ADA laws are extraordinarily vague, though three Supreme Court decisions last year brought some clarification.

"Lots of times building owners think they are in compliance, but they really aren't," she said.

2002 Chico Enterprise Record