Providing handicap access is in every Pittsburgh business’ interest
A city law that goes into effect Jan. 26 requiring businesses to provide handicap access could help ward off law suits by groups representing disabled people.
In recent years, various disabled groups in South and Central Florida have filed thousands of lawsuits against establishments they claim violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990.
Groups such as Miami-based Access Now have filed more than 400 lawsuits throughout the country and there are dozens of similar groups.
Until now, Northeast Florida has been relatively untainted, said Kevin Hyde, a partner at the Jacksonville office of Foley & Lardner, which has represented commercial property owners against ADA suits.
“I don’t think the ordinance will foster a great deal of litigation at first,” he said. But those same groups may head Northeast.
Jacksonville is among the first cities in the country to enact such legislation, he said.
“There is more of an effort to address the effort here,” Hyde said. He attributes the reduced number of legal tangos to the cooperation between the commercial sector and the city’s disabled services division, which will oversee the local law.
Jacksonville Division of Disabled Services Chief Jack Gillrup estimates half of the city’s 30,000 businesses violate the law. But there are no plans for door-to-door enforcement, he said. Rather, the division will take complaints and attempt to work out compromises, including funding some renovations.
Duval County commercial property owners have to ensure exteriors meet local disabled access laws, or face fines of up to $100 a day for non-compliance. Requirements include adequate and properly sized disabled parking spaces, wheelchair ramps and curbs. Although most businesses have designated handicapped parking, those spots may not be the proper size or access may be blocked by trees.
Small business challenged
“It will particularly impact smaller companies that are not traditionally thought of as ‘open to the public,’ such as companies with one or two employees,” Gillrup said. In most case, these are companies that operate from homes converted to business use.
“In big open buildings where space is abundant, [compliance] is not too difficult,” said Tom Turnage, president of Jacksonville’s Turnage Co., which offers remodeling services. “In small tightly packed spaces, it is a nightmare.”
Homes converted to business are most prominent in Riverside, Avondale, San Marco and the Beaches, he said. They tend to have no ramps or off-street parking. In those instances, the law may be harder to apply.
“These buildings are small, and there is no land to expand,” he said. “Most of these buildings are deemed ‘non-conforming properties’ because they lack the parking, landscape, and/or yard set-backs to meet current Jacksonville zoning codes.”
Newer buildings constructed after the 1990 act are more likely to already adhere to ADA standards. Owners of older buildings who have not upgraded are the ones more likely to be impacted by the city ordinance.
Adhering to the law doesn’t come cheap. One of Turnage’s clients, whose name he declined to disclose, recently bought a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in an older part of the city. The client wanted to renovate the bathroom to ADA standards, add air conditioning and make other modifications. But the job estimate was $50,000 to $75,000. The building is valued at $27,000.
“The hardship comes to people who have no intention of conducting a sizable update of their building,” said Jack Diamond, principal of Jacksonville architecture firm Rink Reynolds Diamond Fisher. “Now they’ll have to upgrade them.”
Gillrup’s office has not hired additional employees to enforce the new law, nor is there new money in the budget to hire anyone. It will act on complaints, instead.
“We would try to make an informal contact with the owner first before we drop a citation,” Gillrup said.
Time to change
If a business receives a citation, either the property owner or business owner will have 90 days to make appropriate changes. The city will provide waivers if compliance costs are oppressively high: for instance, if retrofitting a building would cost more than $10,000, or force a store to close longer than two working days, or if the work is deemed architecturally unfeasible.
The city established a one-time $100,000 fund to help business owners with renovations.
Still, city waivers will not affect a business owners’ liability under federal law.
Gillrup is taking a low key approach to be seen as “a friendly entity,” he said. “We hope to do this with the least ill will.”