(This story was first published in the June 13, 2013 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Katy Savage
Several Woodstock business owners cited for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act last year said complying with the Vermont Human Rights Commission could mean going out of business.
Last Thursday, some of those business owners met to discuss a short-term solution to Woodstock’s accessibility issue. It is believed 13 accessibility complaints against Woodstock businesses last year came from one person.
“It’s a real bad feeling,” Gary Smith said. “This whole process seems really unfair. I wonder what the compelling reason was for this complaint. It seems almost mean spirited.” Smith, owner of the Woodstock Pharmacy, received a 17-page document of ADA violations after investigators visited him last October.
“I’m 67 years old,” he said. “If I have to do what this 17-page diatribe tells me to do, I can legitimately and will declare bankruptcy…that building will be empty.
“To do what they’re saying to do here, I might as well fold up my tent and go home. I may not be the only one.”
Vincent Talento, co-owner of the Prince and Pauper is in a similar situation. He received more than 20 pages of violations, asking him to lower bathroom mirrors, add an outdoor ramp and fix tables and chairs. He said he would need to have a new restaurant to be compliant.
“It would put us out of business to make it accessible,” Talento said. “A lot of businesses are hanging on for dear life in town.”
James Duggan, a historic preservation review coordinator for the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development said the extent of the complaints in Woodstock is unique. Coming into compliance will be difficult given the town’s historic buildings.
“The goal is to make the building accessible without taking away the historic integrity,” Duggan said. “There are times when coming into compliance just isn’t feasible.”
Don Bourdon, who owns the Prince and Pauper building questioned the fairness of the citations placed on the 13 businesses when so many other buildings in Woodstock are inaccessible.
“Where does this end?” he said. “If we have to spend $100,000 putting in ramps and elevators or if somebody has to spend that and somebody down the road who is a competitor doesn’t have to spend any money because they didn’t get a complaint, the playing field is not level.”
The American with Disabilities Act has been law since 1990, allowing all individuals, regardless of disability, to have access to public accommodations. The law isn’t enforced until there is a complaint.
“People are going to hold our toes to the fire on that law now,” Rep. Alison Clarkson said. “We can anticipate more (complaints). That’s why we’re trying to be proactive.”
The Woodstock Accessibility Task Force formed last year to brainstorm how to make Woodstock ADA compliant.
Beth Finlayson of the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce added Woodstock has been targeted in the past because of is perceived affluence, but she said solving the problem could boost the town’s economy.
“It’s a difficult problem to solve but if we can do it, this community will be a better community,” Finlayson said. “Something we can write about, something we can promote, but it has to be done as a group.”
Woodstock business owners have until June 15 to respond to the state about their violations.
Scott Franzen, owner of Woodstock Gallery, is providing architectural drawings to make his entrance more accessible.
“I think those businesses that haven’t been cited can just consider themselves lucky right now,” he said. “In some point in time it will happen. This has been law for 25 years. You almost have to say for 25 years everyone in Woodstock has been lucky.”
Clarkson said the only way to solve the accessibility problem in Woodstock is to work together.
“The collective solution is what we’re really working towards,” she said. “Independent of who got cited this time around, we know we have a lot of businesses in the upper floors that are inaccessible. Our goal is to make all of downtown accessible…it’s not going to happen overnight and they need to know it’s not going to happen overnight.”
The Accessibility Task Force will be conducting a survey of Woodstock businesses to articulate the problem.
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