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Telegram & Gazette (Massachusetts)


UPTON — The athletic field at Kiwanis Beach recreation area was busy. Soccer and lacrosse games filled the grounds on weekends, adding to demand for parking on the site from the adjacent baseball field, basketball court, tennis courts and beach.

A parking lot near the beach's Pratt Pond waterfront held 64 spaces, but town officials saw a need for a new lot, at the top of a steep slope, with better access to the sports field.

Besides, according to a Dec. 7, 2015, letter of support from Upton Recreation Commission Chairman Rich Gazoorian to the chairman of the Planning Board, there had been complaints over the years about the inaccessibility of the upper field to people who have limited mobility. Building a new parking lot could solve both problems, officials reasoned.

"As our population ages, the need to provide this accessibility is growing and that is why the Recreation Commission and DPW

have proposed that we build this lot," Mr. Gazoorian wrote.

But the town of roughly 7,700 population fell short of its goals for the project. Residents, advocates and government officials are looking at why that happened, what it will take to remedy the problem and what similar issues must now be addressed because the town did not lay the required groundwork 25 years ago to promote and monitor accessibility.

The Planning Board approved the parking lot site plan in February 2016, by a vote of 3-1, with the assurance that the project would comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Between May 2014 and November 2015, town meeting voters had approved $186,500 for survey work, design and construction of a new 28- to 30-space upper parking lot and walkway to provide better access and overflow parking at the Kiwanis Beach recreation area. The project was completed in July 2016 and opened for the fall season.

But since November, the new lot has been closed. It doesn't meet requirements of the ADA and the state Architectural Access Board, which regulates ADA standards through the building code.

It will cost the town at least $50,000 more to make the new lot and path usable, and close to $300,000 to bring the entire recreation area into compliance, according to town officials and a self-evaluation and transition plan prepared in August by the Center for Living and Working and consultant James M. Mazik. The $2,800 study was commissioned by the Upton Recreation Department.

Upton isn't alone in its noncompliance with laws designed to remove barriers to people with disabilities.

The ADA became law in 1990, and under Title II, public entities with 50 or more employees were supposed to complete transition plans by July 26, 1992, for steps to be taken to make proper structural accommodations, and conduct self-evaluations by Jan. 26, 1993.

According to David D'Arcangelo, director of the Massachusetts Office on Disability, just 92 of the 351 municipalities in the state have self-evaluations on file, and 111, fewer than one in three overall, have transition plans. Upton is one of the majority of communities without a filed transition plan or self-evaluation. The recently completed assessment of Kiwanis Beach is its first step.

"It's commonly overlooked requirements, and people with disabilities are left in a very bad predicament in the state of Massachusetts," said Scott Ricker of Grafton, a volunteer advocate for 15 years. Mr. Ricker started disability advocacy work after a motor vehicle accident compromised his mobility. He also now has multiple sclerosis.

The Access Board notified Upton officials in January of five violations at the Kiwanis recreation site, including lack of adequate aisle space for vans, lack of proper van-accessible and handicapped parking signs, and having a too-steep and improperly structured path from the parking lot to the field.

Also, exterior stairways at the beach's Ramsey building lacked continuous handrails at both sides, causing the town to close the second story of the building to the public.

And though it's not included in the violation form, Upton resident Lyn Haggerty, who filed the initial complaint, pointed out that the new parking lot's surface is gravel, the path to the field includes sharp switchbacks with steep drop-offs, and there is no smooth surface with which to access portable toilets or bleachers, even from two designated handicapped parking spaces off a now-closed paved access road below the field.

"What I get is, everybody had the right intentions," Ms. Haggerty said. "But wouldn't you know what a ramp looks like? You do it the right and safest way for everybody."

The town has since made modifications to signage and aisle space, but according to Chris Goetcheus, communications director for the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, the outstanding issue is the slope of the sidewalk from the new parking lot.

According to a stipulated order from the Access Board, a survey and cost estimate by the engineering firm for the project, CDM Smith, was to be completed by April 24, 2017.

"They would need to submit (a plan) if they choose to reopen the walkway," Mr. Goetcheus said.

State regulations require a walkway to have a slope no greater than 5 percent. Anything above that, to a maximum slope of 8.3 percent, is considered a ramp, and must include handrails and landings, among other requirements.

The slope of the parking lot path reaches 13.6 percent, according to the complaint filed with the state.

"That really should have been shut down because of the risk of injury," said Mr. Ricker, who reviewed the site. "It's too bad that planning boards, when they see projects like this, aren't more involved in access requirements."

Mr. Ricker recently filed three more complaints about the Kiwanis Beach recreation area with the Architectural Access Board, concerning inaccessible routes to other areas at the beach, including the dock and fire pit, and a missing handrail on the ramp to the Ramsey Building. State officials said the complaints are under review.

Derek Brindisi, Upton's new town manager, said a fall town meeting article will request funding to make the walkway accessible, so the upper parking lot can be reopened next summer.

"After it was designed and then built, it was not built according to those standards," Mr. Brindisi said. "Was it in the design? Was it in the build-out? We're trying to determine where the error was."

Part of the issue, according to Ms. Haggerty, may stem from the absence of a completed building permit before the work was done. Without a building permit by a licensed contractor, the building inspector, who is responsible for enforcing the state building code - including accessibility regulations - can't carry out enforcement.

Upton Public Works Director Vincent Roy said there was a misunderstanding about the need for a permit because there was no vertical building on the parking lot. The building inspector called Mr. Roy after it was built and told him it was necessary for code enforcement, because of the accessibility issue. A permit was pulled after the project was completed.

Town documents also reflect confusion about whether a variance from Access Board regulations would be required, but none was ever applied for.

Mr. Brindisi, who served for two years as Worcester's ADA coordinator, said the recreation director and Community Preservation Committee, through which the Kiwanis projects were funded, will review the recently completed consultants' assessment and develop a plan to phase in improvements.

"In New England, it's challenging because a lot of our infrastructure is old. It's really these older buildings where towns struggle to meet the upgrades," he said. "The unfortunate thing is, this was a new construction project where errors were made."

"It's just expensive. We kind of make do," said Grafton Town Administrator Timothy P. McInerney about renovations required for town-owned buildings to meet accessibility standards.

He said Grafton has not filed an ADA-required transition plan, but town officials are seeking a state grant to get that done.

In the past few years, Grafton has funded through capital accounts and Community Preservation Act surcharges more than $2 million toward roughly $3.68 million in renovations of the Grafton Town House at One Grafton Common. The renovations, including installation of an elevator and ramps, were prompted largely by accessibility needs.

Just under $500,000 was spent for stopgap renovations at Grafton Public Library, including an accessible entrance, bathroom and parking. Much of the library, including the stacks, remains inaccessible, but the town was granted variances, according to Library Director Beth Gallaway.

Grafton received a conditional $7.4 million grant this year from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners toward a $16.6 million project to remove the book stacks, create two floors and make the entire building accessible, with a variance requested for the historical main entrance on the Common, Ms. Gallaway said.

The Massachusetts Office on Disability provides municipal ADA improvement grants of up to $250,000 to remove barriers, and create and improve accessible features in public facilities.

In fiscal 2017, which ended in June, Milford received a $30,000 planning grant to complete a comprehensive transition plan.

"It was definitely time to update," said Town Administrator Richard A. Villani.

Northbridge was awarded a $33,105 project grant to bring the Senior Center entrance and sidewalk into compliance.

The town completed its transition plan in 2001, according to Bruce Frieswick, a member of the Northbridge Disability Commission. "Without that document, I couldn't have achieved what I did at the Northbridge Senior Center," he said.

Mr. Frieswick, whose son, Jon, has special needs and also serves on the Disability Commission, said the commission's focus is on trying to make people more aware of barriers their fellow residents might face, whether through physical or mental disability, age, or even a young parent pushing a baby carriage.

"We're trying to use the word 'accessibility,' " he said. "It matters for everyone."

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September 12, 2017


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