Weekly Feature



2017-08-09 / Front Page

Resident’s dispute with town results in ADA access for Nature Center

by ETHAN POWERS
Editor


The Nature Center is technically located at 9050 Sheridan Drive and the land includes five trails and more than 100 acres. The town has historically prevented residents from using the Sheridan Drive entrance due to it being used as a town access road. The Nature Center is technically located at 9050 Sheridan Drive and the land includes five trails and more than 100 acres. The town has historically prevented residents from using the Sheridan Drive entrance due to it being used as a town access road. Jane Smith had driven by the Clarence Nature Center’s entrance on Sheridan Drive countless times, wondering exactly what it was.

On one particularly sunny day in May, she finally decided to stop and find out. She found five beautiful walking trails that offered peace and solace away from the heavily trafficked stretch of Sheridan.

Smith enjoyed the trails so much that she decided to return as quickly as possible, this time with her two sons. Instead of a narrow roadway leading to the trailheads, she now found a locked gate with an elderly man and his car on the wrong side of it. Not knowing there was someone using the trails, the Clarence Parks Department had locked the gate to encourage walkers to enter the Nature Center through the Thompson Road entrance.

When Smith called the town to alert the Parks Department to the problem, she was told that no resident should be using the Sheridan entrance due to its being an access road for the town’s compost operations.

On Mother’s Day, Smith took the town’s advice and sought to enter the Nature Center with her sons through Thompson. A baseball game at the adjacent field made parking an impossibility, but for Smith, there were more concerns raised than where to leave her vehicle.

“We realized that if you’re coming in from Thompson, you have to walk that entire trail just to get to the other trailheads, and you have to hope that it’s mowed, because it wasn’t the first time we went through,” Smith said.

The trail is about a mile in length, and for Smith, who suffers from mitochondrial syndrome, a condition involving muscle weakness, such a walk becomes a painful labor.

“For me, if I have to walk from Thompson, on a day that I’m tired or that the sun is beating down on me, it makes it so difficult,” she said. “At the Nature Center, all the trails are covered and shaded. It’s significant to ask someone to walk a mile just to get to other trails.”

What began as a simple desire to take a walk in a park evolved into a three-month battle with the Town of Clarence to get handicap entry to the Nature Center and ultimately laid bare what Smith believes is a town that is woefully unequipped to provide programming access for its disabled residents.

The Nature Center itself remains one of the town’s most well-kept secrets and a hidden gem to those who frequent its trails. Technically located at 9050 Sheridan Drive, the land includes five trails and more than 100 acres — the result of an idea by former Clarence teachers Jim Marshall and Ken Schnobrich, as well as coordinated efforts involving the town, school district, Clarence Rotary and Melinda Gray Foundation. Its primary purpose has been dedicated to educational activities and functions by the Clarence School District.

The center’s building has been at the site since 1950, when the location served as the Thunderbird Ridge Girl Scout Camp. In the 1970s, the camp was sold to a series of private developers who proposed to construct expensive homes. When those plans fell through, the town decided to purchase the land. In 1998, it placed a restrictive covenant on it, protecting it from development.

Following an arson case in which the building was severely damaged, the proposal to rebuild it and preserve its use for educational opportunities was approved by the Town Board in 2000. In securing the land and preventing potential development, the Nature Center’s acquisition by the town is now seen as a precursor to Clarence’s successful Greenprint Program. Not long afterward, the schools established a marker system along the trails as part of the environmental science curriculum.

Yet, Smith remains adamant that she’s not seeking access to the reconstructed building. All she wants, she says, is to be able to walk the trails without facing a laborious trek that would exacerbate her disability.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the maximum distance from handicap parking to a public utility entrance is 50 feet. A variance can be acquired up to 150 feet. By the town’s lowest estimates, the beginning of the Nature Center’s Thompson Road trail to the baseball field’s parking lot is 300 feet.

As such, Smith inquired in late May about using the Sheridan Drive access road to gain entry to the trailheads. She says she received a letter from the town that concluded that “as a result of significant public safety issues,” the town could “not provide access at this time.”

Highway Superintendent Jamie Dussing later confirmed with The Clarence Bee that a number of security issues caused hesitation on the part of the town to allow access on Sheridan. Vandalism and illegal dumping were two of the primary concerns, he said, in addition to the town’s use of that road for compost operations. When that occurs, there could be anywhere from four to eight trucks that are grinding down wood, posing a threat to walkers.

After repeated attempts to gain more insight into the town’s reasoning, Smith began to file Freedom of Information requests in order to learn why the town purchased the property, as well as the original intent for the land when the purchase was made.

“The point became that I was trying to figure out why this Nature Center is something that basically, the town’s residents did not have available to them and why it was being kept secret,” she said.

It would appear that the town’s shortcomings in ADA access are not unique to Clarence.

Disability Rights New York, the designated federal advocacy system for individuals with disabilities in the state, released a report earlier this year relating to the compliance of county, town and village entities with the ADA’s requirement to designate ADA coordinators.

From Jan. 1 through March 16, 2017, DRNY surveyed 156 municipalities in New York state with a staff of 50 or more people, in order to determine whether each agency had designated an ADA coordinator. DRNY concluded that 136 municipalities were in violation of the ADA and that 40 percent of the public entities had not appointed an ADA coordinator, one of which included Clarence.

Smith points out that she was repeatedly told by the town that Clarence did not have or need an ADA coordinator. She received correspondence on July 27, in the form of an email from Town Attorney Larry Meckler, indicating that not only did Clarence need an ADA coordinator, but it already had one.

Dave Metzger, senior building inspector for the town, was designated the ADA coordinator for Clarence in April 2011 and had completed training under a course offered by Dave Whelan, who heads Niagara University’s First Responder Disability Awareness Training program, which guides agencies and municipalities on compliance with ADA protocol.

Meckler later told The Clarence Bee that the notion that the town did not have an ADA coordinator was his mistake and that Metzger’s appointment to the position preceded Meckler’s hiring as town attorney six years ago.

On Aug. 2, Smith was granted an audience with town officials that included Meckler, Dussing, Metzger, Town Board member Bob Geiger and Supervisor Pat Casilio.

As seats were taken at a round table in a conference room at Clarence Town Hall, tensions flared almost immediately. Pleasantries were not exchanged before Smith and Casilio became engaged in heated discussions about the town’s lack, or perceived lack, of communication on the issue. Then the sound of rubber wheels rolling over a carpeted floor drew everyone’s attention.

Enter Todd Vaarwerk, the director of advocacy and public policy at WNY Independent Living Inc. — a family of agencies that provides services and programs to assist individuals with disabilities. Vaarwerk has worked at the state-funded not-for-profit for 23 years, and he had previously worked with Meckler while Meckler was still the executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

Vaarwerk and Meckler spoke via phone in June, at which point Meckler invited Vaarwerk to view the Nature Center site that Smith alerted him to. At the meeting on Aug. 2, Vaarwerk edged his wheelchair to an open spot at the conference room table and immediately took command of the meeting as he spoke on behalf of Smith.

Vaarwerk told those in attendance that if the Nature Center’s Thompson Road entrance proved to be inaccessible to those with disabilities, then Title II of the ADA would require that the town create a mechanism by which residents could use the Sheridan entrance.

“If there’s a barrier in the primary entrance that you designated that cannot be remediated, then we have to figure out what to do with the Sheridan Drive entrance to make it usable,” he said.

Discussions became centered around the definition of a park under the ADA and whether the Nature Center and its town-intended educational use might preclude it from violating any laws related to residential access.

“I don’t know if it’s even fair to call it a park,” said Casilio. “We call it a nature center because it was set up for the school system.”

He added that the land itself is not maintained by the town and later confirmed that the town does not promote it because of its primary purpose as an educational opportunity for the school district.

“If a tree falls down, it’s left in its natural state,” he said. “The trails are just markings on the trees. It’s not an open system.”

Yet Vaarwerk clarified that because all entrances to the Nature Center are not access controlled — meaning if someone went into the park, they would not be told to leave — then by definition under the state Parks Department, the Nature Center qualifies as a park.

Under Title II of the ADA, the law requires that no undue administrative burden be placed on a citizen to get access to a public facility. After more than an hour of deliberations among town officials, Smith and Vaarwerk, the two parties finally arrived at what appeared to be an acceptable remediation.

Upon a request made to Metzger, the town’s ADA coordinator, any disabled resident seeking access to the Nature Center will be provided entry through an unlocked gate at the Sheridan Drive entrance, within one hour’s notice. Metzger would also provide any information that the town thinks is relevant, such as warning that town compost trucks might be working on site.

When asked how such information might be provided to disabled residents, Meckler said he had yet to receive the language of the solution as proposed by WNY Independent Living.

“I think we’re looking to set up something online. The people who would be provided access would be those who would petition our ADA coordinator,” he said.

Despite potentially arriving at a resolution that will prevent Smith from having to endure painful walks simply to enjoy the Nature Center in its entirety, she remains skeptical that the town is in a position to adequately provide for the roughly 2,000 disabled residents in Clarence.

Namely, Smith would like to see the town provide a transition plan that details how it will better achieve program access for its disabled residents.

“It’s an acceptable solution for my situation,” said Smith. “Does it check all of the boxes for other Clarence residents who have disabilities? No. Not at all.”

For medical confidentiality purposes, the name of the woman in this article has been changed.

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