In a Folio Weekly article published Tuesday, columnist Susan Cooper Eastman gave her account of a day spent in St. Augustine recently in the company of local personality Merrill Paul Roland — an advocate for the rights of the disabled.
Anyone who has driven downtown, ridden a motorcycle or walked much distance knows, too well, the problem the city will no doubt face for eternity — the town was laid out with narrow, brick streets designed for pedestrians, horses and carts in the late 16th century.
Disabled access was clearly an afterthought.
In comments attributed to Roland, he said he believes the bigger modern obstacle to mobility in St. Augustine is the lack of designated parking spaces, signage and curb cuts for wheelchairs.
Roland notes that there is not a single designated handicapped space around the city’s Plaza de la Constitucion or along its bayfront, even though both areas have reserved spaces for taxis, tourist trolleys, delivery trucks and horse-drawn carriages.
This is not a new cause for Roland; he was one of three complainants who joined with the organization, “Access Florida”, and sued the City of St. Augustine for noncompliance with federal ADA requirements.
The city settled the lawsuit in April 2007 by promising to spend $650,000 in five years upgrading access, including providing handicap-accessible curb cuts “to the maximum extent feasible”.
The City has until April 2012 to reach compliance; so far, they have reportedly spent $457,000.
Roland believes there are simple ways the city could make life easier for disabled visitors, such as providing a map of handicapped parking at the Visitor’s Center located on West Castillo Drive — something the city was required to do within 90 days of the settlement agreement, but has not accomplished.
The city also does not let disabled tourists know that anyone with a handicapped card can park anywhere free. Roland says that information could be added to the map.
It is fair to assume that Roland will follow every dollar until the City complies with the settlement. It is also fair to assume that Roland will continue to reach out through media contacts, by speaking at public meetings, and through whatever means he locate to shine light on what he believes is a great injustice.
For example, on October 5, Roland called into the WJCT radio show “First Coast Connect” when guest St. Augustine Mayor Joe Boles was speaking about the city’s planned Civil Rights museum. Roland complimented the city on its commitment to Civil Rights, but observed it continues to violate the rights of the disabled.
Eastman wrote that Boles said improving accessibility is not a priority for him or the city. When she spoke to the mayor, she reported that Boles said, “We have [handicapped spaces] everywhere and people are pretty good about finding them, and, other than Merrill, certainly no one is coming before the commission and saying they want more.”
Public Works Director Martha Graham says pending revisions to ADA law would require that cities designate at least one handicapped space per block, or four in a square-block area. “Right now we are compliant,” says Graham, though she acknowledges, “We do have room to grow.”
Roland remains in communication with one of the lawyers who represented the ADA plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the City. Miami attorney Charles Ferguson says that, at this time, eight downtown streets lack proper curb cuts and the city still has serious compliance issues. After Ferguson reviews the procedure for notification in the settlement, he will be sending the City of St. Augustine a notice of violation soon.