Archive for Friday, June 14, 2002

Ruling may smooth walkways’ wrinkles

Federal court rules it’s up to cities to keep sidewalks safe

June 14, 2002


Many folks out for an evening stroll are able to step over and around broken concrete in their path. Bob Mikesic who has been in a wheelchair since 1968 finds bad sidewalks to be a more formidable obstacle.

"It slows you down to a great degree," said Mikesic, advocacy coordinator at Independence Inc., a Lawrence-based agency for people with disabilities.

"You have to go slow when there are gaps of a half-inch, two inches or more," he said. "Sometimes you have to go on the grass to get around where it's buckled. And that's tough in the dark."

Those are problems the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals might have had in mind Wednesday when it ruled in a Sacramento case that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires cities to keep sidewalks in good repair. Disability-rights advocates said the ruling would have nationwide implications.

Wednesday's ruling won't be binding outside the 9th Circuit unless the case makes its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and is upheld, Lawrence officials said. They did, however, tout the Lawrence's sidewalk maintenance efforts.

"We try to look out for all those needs," Assistant City Manager Dave Corliss said.

City Manager Mike Wildgen said Lawrence had been working for more than a decade to meet the ADA's sidewalk requirements, building new intersections to have curb ramps for sidewalks and retrofitting ramps onto sidewalks in older areas of town.

"We're to the point where we don't have many more left," he said.

What's more, he said, the city spends about $100,000 a year to build new sidewalks in neighborhoods with "gaps," and to repair old sidewalks in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Those projects will take place this summer in the Pinckney, Oread and East Lawrence neighborhoods.

Tammy Bennett, the city's ADA coordinator, said she got about 20 calls a year complaining about sidewalk conditions. About a dozen concern accessibility requirements, she said.

Mikesic said he was generally satisfied with the city's efforts to make sidewalks accessible for people in wheelchairs.

"They've followed through on a number of suggestions we've made," he said.

City officials were quick to note that Kansas law puts the burden of sidewalk maintenance on the "adjoining property owner." That means neighborhood homeowners need to keep their sidewalks in good repair.

"I know that in some of these older neighborhoods, there are property owners who just can't afford to do it," said Jordan Lerner, chairman of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods.

Corliss said courts probably wouldn't hold individual homeowners liable under ADA. Instead, they would hold the city accountable for any problems that arise. The city in turn has a process that allows it to compel property owners to fix the sidewalks; those are the roughly 20 complaints a year that are acted upon, Bennett said.

But Mikesic said there were still sidewalks in Lawrence he'd rather not use especially when he parks in the Oread Neighborhood to go to Kansas University football games.

"I've almost been thrown out (of the wheelchair) a couple of times," he said. "It's almost safer to go in the street. Not that that's any safer, but you do what you have to do."

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