The Ashton City Council decided to allow George and Karon Robertson to maintain an accessibility ramp at their residence in Ashton for one year at a public hearing Wednesday evening.
The 3-2 vote reflected a split City Council, and Ashton Mayor Tom Mattingly ultimately made the deciding vote in determining that the ramp could remain in its present configuration.
George Robertson’s personal health has been declining since he underwent back surgery last June, requiring him to use a wheelchair, his wife Karon Robertson said in an interview with the Standard Journal. The ramp in front of their house allows him to exit his house and access the road so that he can attend doctor appointments.
The ramp was installed in front of the Robertson’s house on August 11, and the city determined to deny the permit for the ramp because it was in violation of the 15-foot setback requirement required by Ashton city ordinances.
“Tonight we are hearing the appeal of the denial of a Class 1 permit,” said Sara Bowersox, Ashton Planning and Zoning Administrator, at the meeting. “... Within the zone in the city, all of the properties are held to the same requirements… What was in question here was the setbacks. Setback requirements are generally in place primarily for public safety reasons providing distance between buildings required for maintaining utility access, distance between buildings and roads for adequate sight lines, and in a place like Ashton, an extra buffer between the roads and structures to allow for accumulation of snow.”
In early July, Bowersox said that she was contacted by Cheryl Baird on behalf of a church group that wanted to install a ramp to help the Robertsons. Bowersox said that she received the application on August 11.
Bowersox said that the disability ramp was installed on the 11th, before she could review the application and measure for setbacks.
“I measured for the setbacks and found that the ramp came all the way out to their property line which is in violation of the 15-foot setback from the property line at the road,” Bowersox said.
Bowersox denied the permit for the ramp. The Robertsons appealed the denial and the matter went before the Ashton City Council for resolution. According to the public hearing notice for the meeting, “The applicants were told they needed to come into compliance with the code. The applicants are appealing this denial.” The public hearing was originally scheduled for September and was delayed three times.
The hearing was delayed because the city wanted to look into whether the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Fair Housing Act applied to the request for a disability ramp, said Ashton city attorney Sam L. Angell. City staff also held an interactive process meeting with the Robertsons and their representatives.
“We listened to the applicants to discuss with them potential resolutions and let them explain where they were at with their situation,” Angell said. “... Following that review of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act, it is my opinion, as a member of staff, that we don’t need to get to the question of disability access on this particular piece of property, or whether the Americans with Disabilities Act requires us to make an exception to the setback for the simple reason that there is adequate space in a few different variations to build a disability ramp that will access this house without being in setbacks.”
City staff requested that the ramp be moved so that it extended to the west side of the home’s entryway, rather than north towards the city street.
“In accordance with our zoning regulations, we see that this property does have space on it to allow a ramp to be constructed from a platform running to the west and stay within the setbacks,” Bowersox said. “So it is my conclusion that this ramp can be constructed and installed at this property location, still meeting the setbacks, and not need any exceptions to the zoning regulations.”
Tim Maurer presented on behalf of the Robertsons. Maurer serves as chairman of the Ashton Help Network’s Board of Directors. The Ashton Help Network is a veteran-founded 501©(3) non-profit organization that partners with local volunteers and businesses to provide care, services and advocacy for those who are in need, its website states.
His organization became aware of the need for a ramp in June, when George Robertson went to the hospital for a medical emergency that required him to end up at Carriage Cove for rehabilitation, Maurer presented to the City Council.
The Methodist Women of Faith determined to help the Robertsons build a wheelchair ramp.
“On August 1, my organization acquired a modular, mobile wheelchair ramp and offered to the Methodist Women to have it in lieu of them building a ramp, and they accepted that,” Maurer said. “At this point, the Ashton Help Network mistakenly thought that the Class 1 permit was approved.”
They began assembling the ramp on August 10.
“There was a sense of urgency for this ramp, because Mr. Robertson was thought to be coming home any day and would need the ramp immediately,” Maurer stated.
Bowersox informed Maurer’s group that there was a 40 foot setback from the center of the road, he said, and so they shortened the ramp so that it would land outside of the setback. Later on August 11, an Ashton police officer stopped by and told them that there was an additional setback.
Maurer said that the city’s suggestions to construct the ramp out the back door to the house or to the west side of the front entrance were “deemed to not fit a reasonable accommodation in our view.” Constructing the ramp in either of these configurations would require extensive snow removal during the winter which the Robertsons are not able to provide.
Maurer stated that the Ashton Help Network has conducted extensive research into the Americans with Disabilities Act. While ADA requirements do not apply to private residences, the federal Fair Housing Act “does cover private homes and almost mirrors exactly ADA requirements,” he said.
“In accordance with the federal Fair Housing Act, the city of Ashton code of ordinances is in direct violation of FHA disability mandates,” Maurer continued. “The denial of this wheelchair ramp (to the) disabled is a clear violation and is a blatant discrimination aimed at the Robertsons and all others with disabilities in Ashton.”
Maurer stated that the city of Ashton could make an accommodation by removing a barrier.
During the period of public comment, eight Ashton residents expressed support for the Robertsons. One city employee spoke against the ramp.
After the public hearing closed, the Ashton City Council discussed whether granting the accommodation for the ramp in its present configuration was the proper course of action to pursue.
City Councilman John Scafe made a motion to overturn the denial of the permit for the disability ramp and allow a one-year temporary permit “for medical reasons.”
Council members John Kaelberer and Teresa Hansen voted against the motion, while Scafe and Jerry Funke voted for it.
In casting his tie-breaking vote, Mattingly said, “I’m going to say that we should grant the one year (permit) and revisit the ordinance.”
Karon Robertson expressed her gratitude for the vote.
“I’m relieved because it was so stressful,” she said. “...All we’re asking is to not put that ramp where we have to be in the snow, because I’m 75 years old. I’m not exactly good at doing snow, and we have no family here. Our family all lives in Nevada. We have a lot of good friends though… So I am thankful, I’m very thankful.”