FAIRHOPE – Plans for Fairhope’s Working Waterfront improvements will include a ramp or some other type of access for handicapped visitors from the bluff to South Beach, city officials said Monday, Sept. 13.
The Fairhope City Council voted to approve a resolution to add the access required under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The federal grant providing the money for waterfront improvements will require that the city provides ADA access, Mayor Sherry Sullivan said.
Fairhope is eligible for a $6.2-million grant to finance improvements on South Beach and the Municipal Pier. The grant is available under the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast, or RESTORE, Act.
In past hearings on the Working Waterfront project, residents criticized the proposal to add a ramp from the bluff to the beach area saying that construction could harm the slopes. Sullivan said, however, that officials with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which oversees the grant, said the project must meet ADA requirements.
“They said you have to meet ADA accessibility,” Sullivan said. “It’s a federal grant. No question. You have to meet that accessibility. They said there’s really no reason to even ask them, because you have to meet the accessibility.”
Resident Chris Riley, a member of the city Bicycle-Pedestrian Committee, said he and other residents who have to use wheelchairs need access to the bluff area. He said that in 20 years of visiting and living in Fairhope, he has never been to the bluffs because of the lack of accessibility.
“I don’t want to do anything to damage the bluff or change the way things are. I just want to make it possible for people like me or other individuals to have access to that bluff or to the pier if coming from the town area,” Riley said.
Councilman Jay Robinson said city officials have to develop a plan that provides access and that preserves an area that is a part of the community’s heritage.
“We’ve spent a lot of time on this and it’s a significant decision. I think the primary focus of it so far has really been, aesthetically, what it’s going to do to the bluff. Aesthetically and potentially structurally, and I get that that’s important because it’s going to be there and that’s a big part of what Fairhope is and what it offers that area,” Robinson said. “But I think what we’re losing sight of is by putting a ramp like this, what we’re offering to those who might not have previously been able to enjoy it and that’s something to seriously consider also.”
Resident Chris Knight said council members should consider other ways to allow handicapped visitors to go from the bluffs to the beach.
“I think that it would be really beneficial to have your design team expand their design to look at some other alternatives to solve the accessibility issue,” Knight said. “It would be possible to construct an elevator at the bluff that would have a much smaller footprint than the ramp that’s being proposed. It would make it much easier to get up and down that grade change than trying to roll up a 300-plus foot ramp and it would be much less visible and intrusive to the public than what’s being looked at right now.”
Council President Jack Burrell said the city will consider all options for accessibility, including an elevator.
Sullivan said residents will have a chance to comment on the design and other plans for the project before work is approved.
“As we move forward, again, there will be a lot more public input,” Sullivan told council members. “Because as we put these on the council agenda for design approval, for bid approval, for y’all to award the bid, that’s always time for public input. So, people who are kind of criticizing the fact that we’re not holding specific public meetings just for this ramp project need to understand these are public meetings. There’s opportunity for public input. They can reach out to their council members if they have concerns, and this will not be the last time they see this project.”
She said, however, that the city has to move forward with plans to meet the grant deadline. Under the terms of the grant, the city must have bid-ready documents completed by April 2022, according to statements at previous meetings.