Monday, April 27, 2009

California town sued over lack of disability access in new downtown improvements

From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

ENCINITAS, Calif. — Disabled-rights activist Dennis Sharp has sued Encinitas in federal court, saying the city's downtown street improvements ignored the needs of people like him who use a wheelchair.

In 2002, Encinitas completed a $5.2 million downtown Streetscape project that brightened up the commercial district with new sidewalks, medians, green benches and palm trees along Coast Highway 101 between A and F streets. Plans to extend the work south from F to K streets were put on hold.

In U.S. District Court documents filed March 5, Sharp said that when the city installed those improvements, it neglected to add enough accessible parking for disabled people who wish to shop and dine in Encinitas.

In most cases, the city installed curb cuts only at street corners, so there are no ramps connecting street parking spaces to the sidewalk.

Sharp contends the Streetscape project violates state law and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, both of which prohibit discrimination against disabled people and set access standards for new or renovated buildings.

“With everything they've done along that main street, there's nothing there for wheelchairs,” Sharp said in an interview April 24. “Somebody was not doing their homework when they did this.”

The Encinitas City Council met April 15 in closed session to discuss the case. City Attorney Glenn Sabine declined to comment April 24 on the pending litigation, not wanting to jeopardize the city's position.

The lawsuit seeks: a court order to add disabled parking and curb cuts; the removal of barriers to certain buildings; an order requiring Encinitas to stop its “discriminatory policies” and requiring the city to ensure that future projects provide access to the disabled; damages and court costs.

Sharp, 69, is a Del Mar resident who has used a wheelchair since 1966 after suffering brain damage during an operation on his throat. He is a retired art director for an aerospace company who has worked with San Diego, Del Mar and the Del Mar Fairgrounds on access issues.

During a recent trip to downtown Encinitas with his wife, Joanne, Sharp demonstrated his difficulty in getting around on Coast Highway 101.

From D Street to E Street, for example, there's plenty of diagonal parking, but not one blue-striped parking space for the handicapped, and no ramps from the street to the sidewalk. A person in a wheelchair using a regular parking space would have to risk wheeling alongside traffic to the end of the block to get back onto the sidewalk.

There are handicapped-parking spots behind some of the businesses, but many are too small, Sharp said.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act has led to many lawsuits against public agencies. In 2003, the city of Sacramento settled a lawsuit by agreeing to dedicate 20 percent of transportation funds for the next 30 years to improve sidewalks, crosswalks and curb ramps.

In 2002, Sharp sued Del Mar over access to Powerhouse Park. His lawsuit led to an investigation by the state attorney general, and Del Mar officials agreed to correct violations throughout the city, from widening doorways to increasing the number of handicapped-parking spaces. The city also paid Sharp $80,000; all but $10,000 went to his attorney.

Sharp said the Encinitas lawsuit was a last resort after he tried unsuccessfully to advise city officials on the problems. He said he has served on several citizens advisory committees, including those that guided the development of San Diego's Petco Park and the design for a new grandstand at the fairgrounds in Del Mar.

Sharp is not to be confused with San Diego attorney Theodore Pinnock. Pinnock, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, has become notorious for suing dozens of store owners throughout the county, demanding changes to their businesses and cash settlements.

Sharp disapproves of Pinnock's tactics, saying: “That guy has made (disabled activists) look like leeches.”

He pointed out that his lawsuit targets the city, not individual businesses. “It's the city's fault, and they should fix it,” he said.

Wayne Landon, government relations director for the Cal-Diego Paralyzed Veterans Association, said that access issues are still common, although he's not familiar with the situation in Encinitas.

“I've been to a lot of different places where I couldn't go into a certain restaurant or a store because of access,” Landon said.

Landon says that federal law is clear in requiring cities to provide access to public facilities.

“I've mostly worked with the city of San Diego and the last couple of years they've put a lot of money into it,” Landon said. “For a lot of years it was really low priority. Because of lawsuits, it became a higher priority.”