Monday, July 31, 2017

Seniors Denied Safe Access to Trail System

Above: Residents of The Firs, an independent retirement facility on Lilly Road in Olympia, have quietly worked for over two years to gain safe access from the edge of the facility’s property to the Chehalis Western trail system. Many of the residents use canes, walkers, wheelchairs and motorized scooters. Negotiations between the City of Olympia and property owners of the facility have stalled.

City Neglected to Obtain Right of Way, Property Owner Denies City Access

Ensign Road Neighborhood Pathway Project Received $162,000

Residents May Have Title II American Disabilities Act Case

By Janine Gates
Little Hollywood
A Little Hollywood Land Use Investigation

Residents of The Firs, an independent retirement living facility for seniors at 426 Lilly Road in Olympia, want improved access to a public trail that is so close and yet so far.

For over two years, they have patiently worked with their property management representatives, MBK Senior Living, and the City of Olympia to create safe access to the Chehalis Western trail system trail.

The hazardous connection is from the end of the property’s sidewalk at the end of Ensign Road to a steep, 65 foot dirt path that drops several inches, then dips down into the middle of a drainage ditch, and rises again to meet the trail. Another potential access point is also difficult and blocked by a parking lot curb and a rough lawn.

The Chehalis Western trail system offers 56 miles of paved, uninterrupted trails, allowing access to regional businesses, homes, work, and recreational activities.

On a regular basis, dozens of able-bodied staff and residents, including bicyclists, access the area near The Firs to reach medical offices, the Memorial Clinic, assisted living facilities, St. Peter Hospital, Kaiser Permanente (formerly Group Health), and a nearby apartment complex.

Many seniors who are disabled cannot negotiate the drop from the sidewalk to the dirt path, like Manuel Gutierrez, who is an amputee and uses a motorized wheelchair. He lives in a nearby apartment complex and drives to the edge of the sidewalk to watch others access the trail.

Brave motorized scooter riders access the trail either by driving to the next accessible entry point near Kaiser Permanente to the north, about one fourth of a mile away, or to an asphalt pathway to the south near an apartment complex, the Olympia Crest Apartments, also about one fourth of a mile away.

The intersection of Lilly Road and Martin Way is the second busiest intersection in Thurston County.

Above: As another resident of The Firs drives by on his motorized scooter, Ken Lewis, a resident of The Firs, stands in the middle of the dirt path that leads from a sidewalk with a several inch drop off to the Chehalis Western trail.

Above: City of Olympia councilmember Clark Gilman, center, met with Sherman Beverly, left, and Freeman Stickney, right, and about 20 other residents of The Firs in June to discuss their request for safe access to the Chehalis Western Trail. 

Beverly, a former resident council president at The Firs, is a professor emeritus of Northeastern Illinois University, and has recently published a book. In June, he shared with Gilman that he is nearing his 90th birthday and encounters difficulty accessing the trail.

Residents Petition City for Access

The city approved $162,000 for the Ensign Road neighborhood pathway in 2016 and has been supportive of the residents’ request for access. 

The city prepared to begin work on the project this summer, however, the property owner, Olympia Propco, LLC, denied the city right-of-way, thus blocking the project.

Clark Gilman was chair of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory committee when he first heard about the issue. He is now a council member. 

Gilman and Little Hollywood were recently invited to The Firs to take a look at the steep dirt path and hear the concerns of about 20 residents gathered to discuss the issue. 

Freeman Stickney, a former resident council president at The Firs, spent his career in the Air Force and the National Weather Service.

He says a significant number of the 130 residents at The Firs, including more than half a dozen who use power chairs, would like to use the trail for exercise and enjoyment.

In September of 2015, Stickney, along with residents Sherman Beverly, Jr., and Ken Lewis, presented a petition to the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, signed by 85 residents asking the Olympia City Council to include their request for access in its neighborhood pathways program to extend the sidewalk in the 2016 budget.

The petition was acknowledged, and forwarded to the city council for their consideration.

“A few of the residents with power chairs have mentioned to me that they would use the Chehalis Western trail to reach businesses on Martin Way and the South Sound Shopping Center. The old railroad grade is level, and much easier and safer to traverse than Lilly Road,” said Stickney.

“The Firs highlights access to the trail in their advertisements. They have even organized trail walks, weather permitting – for those able bodied!” he added.

Gilman said that while it appears the property owner thinks that space is valuable for possible expansion, he doubted that the city would approve one. The drainage ditch causing the dip in the trail is actually a stormwater retention pond, and a wetland the size of about 10 to 15 acres is located directly adjacent the trail. 

During winter months, at least 12 inches of water is in the ditch, making access to the trail difficult for everyone.

“I think it would be good public relations for MBK Senior Living and The Firs to allow the city access. It’s not taking away anything from them. We could provide a nice bench and plaque on it, letting everyone know that they allowed this to happen. Let’s get this done, especially before it starts raining again,” added resident Mike Flothe.

City Realizes Its Own Oversight to Obtain Right of Way

Records indicate that the city has worked hard for two years, making numerous attempts to contact the appropriate representative for Olympia Propco, LLC, which is based in California, and proactively negotiate for the area.

Through the city’s Site Plan Review Committee, city staff reviewed the area and worked out the requirements needed for approval of the trail development and submitted its pathway design to the property owner.

The city is asking Olympia Propco, LLC to dedicate a 60 foot right-of-way for Ensign Road, as required by a development condition of approval that was apparently never completed, and dedicating roughly 18 feet by 50 feet of pathway right-of-way.

The facility was built in 1984.

The city realized its oversight when residents of The Firs made their petition for access. It has offered the owner a relatively small, but undetermined potential land tax reduction and offered to pay Olympia Propco, LLC a nominal fee of $10,000 for 13,897 square feet to expedite the process.

In 2015, the onsite executive director of The Firs’ property management company, MBK Senior Living, wrote a letter to the city supporting its residents, saying, “An ADA compliant trail access would be greatly appreciated and welcomed to our neighborhood and The Firs.”

Residents of The Firs believe they have a strong case with regard to Title II of the American Disabilities Act (ADA), which covers state and local government activities.

Title II requires that state and local governments give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services, and activities such as public education, employment, transportation, recreation, health care, social services, courts, voting, and town meetings.

Lack of access to the trail for those with disabilities covers several of those categories.

A MBK Senior Living representative based in California, Kevin Hanlon, wrote an April 7, 2017 email to city surveyor Ladd Cluff, seemingly extinguishing all hope for the seniors, disabled, and others members of the public from being able to safely access the trail.

“Being a senior community, we are extra cautious and sensitive to anything that could possibly make our property less secure. We’re very concerned a new access trail point might bring in greater activity and create a potentially less safe area. It is our belief at this time, that an access point in this area would not be prudent,” wrote Hanlon.

Cluff responded that that the response was very disappointing.

“The pathway would have a significant positive impact to our community. We will inform the public stakeholders that the pathway project is unable to move forward. Our message will be that the property owners are not willing to grant the public the necessary right-of-way for the pathway. We hope your position changes in the future,” wrote Cluff.

Max Rheinhardt, the new executive director for The Firs, recently addressed residents about the issue and on two occasions, suggested in meetings that the property owner may fence off the area in question for liability reasons.

He had little to say in a brief interview with Little Hollywood, except to say that some residents do not understand the situation.

Ken Lewis, 85, a retired manager of the hospital licensing program under the state department of health, has spearheaded effort for safe access for the past two years.

Lewis is active and regularly walks and bikes the Chehalis Western Trail. His wife is not able to access the trail, and the couple recently decided to move from The Firs to another retirement community that has access to trails.

“Fencing off the area would be horrible, and the worst possible, unintended consequence of our efforts for safe access. I even wrote Olympia Propco, LLC in June about my decision, and I never received a communication back. We gave The Firs notice that we will vacate our apartment with the lack of trail access as the primary reason. They need to know there will be consequences for their failure to resolve this issue,” said Lewis.

Above: Ken Lewis, center, speaks to Councilmember Clark Gilman and residents of The Firs at a meeting in June about the the proposed pathway on Ensign Road.

Ensign Neighborhood Pathway Application Funded

The residents of The Firs are not alone in their desire for access to the trail.

The nearby Olympia Transitional Care and Rehabilitation skilled nursing care facility has over 100 residents and over 130 employees. The facility shares a parking lot with The Firs and the trail is frequently used by its staff and residents throughout the year. 

Its administrator, Ben Jensen, wrote a letter to the city in 2015 in support of The Firs’ resident request for safe access to the trail from Ensign Road.

Coincidentally, and unbeknownst to the residents of The Firs at the time, a neighborhood pathway application to the city had been independently written and submitted in mid-2015 by Keith Edgerton, on behalf of the Woodland Trail Greenway Association.

Edgerton works across the street from The Firs as Providence St. Peter Hospital’s Sustainability Coordinator.

St. Peter Hospital is the largest private employer in Thurston County and has an active commute trip reduction program.

“Creating a safe trail connection would greatly improve all neighborhood business and St. Peter Hospital's ability to encourage staff to use alternate forms of transportation in order to reduce congestion in this area. This pathway would encourage residents (including the elderly) to access the trail for health and wellness benefits,” wrote Edgerton in his application.

“Whether it’s cyclists, persons with disabilities, moms pushing baby strollers or elderly people trying to access the trail, the existing trail connection poses access limitations and safety concerns.

The project received $162,000 in 2016 and the go-ahead from city council. However, the money has been sitting in the Capital Facilities Plan budget, on hold, ever since.

Asked what could happen to this funding, Michelle Swanson, city staff for the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, says there are no other Neighborhood Pathways projects scheduled.

“This gives us the flexibility to reserve the funding for the Ensign Pathway for a while, in case the property owners decide to come back to the negotiating table. Were there another project in the pipeline, we probably would have moved on from building that project. 

“As we told them, we do hope they’ll come back to the table. We believe in the value of this project,” she said.

Above: John Gessner has lived at The Firs for about two and a half years. He uses a motorized scooter and must go out of his way to use alternative access points to the trail, either behind Kaiser Permanente or to the south, near Olympia Crest Apartments, along Lilly Road. He says there are five or six residents with scooters who would like to use the trail, but don't, due to the lack of safe access.

Last month, Gessner took a spill off of his scooter at the intersection of Lilly and Ensign Road. Luckily, several passersby immediately jumped out of their cars to assist him and right his scooter. He was shook up and slightly injured. Gessner wants trail access closest to the facility so he doesn’t have to use the streets to access services. I was lucky. My scooter was laying on top of me. I wouldn't have been able to get it off of me if it hadn't been for those folks.