FAIRHOPE – The city parks at the bluffs and pier area do not meet federal handicapped accessibility standards and improvements will be needed as part of Fairhope’s Working Waterfront development plan, a consultant told City Council members.
Those changes could include the need to add ramps at the top of the bluffs over South Beach, Rick Hinrichs said. The proposal for a ramp has been opposed by some residents who do not want the bluff area disturbed.
Fairhope has been approved for $6.2 million through the federal Resources and Economic Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast Act to stabilize the bluffs and make improvements in the Municipal Pier area. In earlier meetings, council members voted to request a report to recommend if a ramp from the bluffs to South Beach would be required as part of those improvements.
Hinrichs said the area does not comply with the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Both acts require that public areas be accessible to people with disabilities.
“In essence what we have right now, we have a public right of way system that provides no wheelchair access at all to the centerpiece of our town,” Hinrichs said. “In essence, for most with disabilities, the area is extremely difficult and really non-functional for people with disabilities at all to gain access to that from a public right of way perspective. Yes, we have parking that’s there. Now, whether it’s compliant or non-compliant, I can give an opinion. On the surface, it’s non-compliant, based on locations of access, however, a lot of that’s going to get reworked and probably going to get redesigned and rebuilt, so a lot of that will be corrected in the project.”
Hinrichs said any program receiving RESTORE Act money must comply with regulations to provide access for handicapped people.
“The RESTORE Act, of course, is a government grant program,” Hinrichs said. “Government grant programs are under Section 504. They lean very heavily toward disabled access compliance in all of their programs and grant programs. So, it would be incumbent upon the city to be sure that accessibility is really at the forefront.”
Hinrichs said the only way for a person in a wheelchair to travel from Utopia Park at the top of the bluffs to South Beach below is to go back to Fairhope Avenue and down a sidewalk with a steep incline.
He said the ADA went into effect almost 30 years ago and the park area is still not in compliance with its requirements for public facilities.
“Compliance got triggered in 1992,” he said. “We’re just now tackling it in 2021. We have the ability now with the federal grant funds that we to maybe take a real good look at this because now we’ve got an opportunity we didn’t have before.”
The city would have few options to improve access other than a ramp, he said. An elevator could require more changes on the bluff than a ramp. Another proposal was a cable car. That would require engineering studies to determine if that would work, he said.
Hinrichs said another possibility would be to make changes on Fairhope Avenue to allow more access on or near the sidewalks.
City Council members said Hinrichs report would be sent to the engineering firm of Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood, which is designing the Working Waterfront project, to determine what changes can be made to comply with accessibility regulations.