By Design, a City Welcomes the Elderly, Disabled

Times Staff Writer

Susan Dye remembers the sting of being kept from her grieving family after her sister-in-law's funeral three years ago in Northern California. Her wheelchair couldn't negotiate the stairs to the reception.

"That was kind of embarrassing and traumatic," said Dye, 51, of Murrieta. "I had known my sister-in-law for 25 years."

At her home, Dye has ramps, wide doors and hallways, and other accommodations for a person in a wheelchair, and soon many homes will be like it.

The Murrieta City Council last week approved an ordinance requiring developers to make 15% of their new homes and rental units accessible to elderly and disabled residents -- one of the most stringent such mandates in the state.

The sweeping design standards are expected to affect about 2,000 houses, condos, duplexes and triplexes to be built in the southwest Riverside County community, where the population has doubled to 83,000 in five years.

The ordinance requires the specially accessible homes to include level thresholds, so wheelchairs and walkers can pass easily; walk-in showers on the ground floor; and wide doorways, hallways and reinforced walls capable of supporting grab bars. Such accommodations often are referred to as "universal design."

The ordinance also is intended to allow aging citizens to remain at home as their physical capabilities change, and will apply to all new communities for seniors.

The City Council approved the ordinance unanimously, despite some opposition from developers in a region blanketed with new red rooftops.

"I'm hoping that this will continue to gain momentum," said Councilman Douglas McAllister, who saw firsthand the need for the design requirements when his father-in-law couldn't use McAllister's bathtub during a visit. "It's very much a common-sense thing to do."

City officials said the need was obvious: The 2000 Census showed that nearly 13% of those living in Murrieta had a disability, and that 11.4% of the population was 65 or older.

Developers argue that the new rules will require builders and buyers to pay for features that most consumers -- even in senior communities -- don't request.

"We understand that you want to be friendly and want to do things differently and want to be a leader," said Bill Blankenship, deputy director of the Riverside County Building Industry Assn. But the ordinance is "really asking builders just to build something into their homes that the average home buyer doesn't really want, care about, ever believe that they'll need."

While some of the requirements are simple to deliver, creating level entryways can cause grading problems, potentially adding greatly to construction costs, Blankenship said.

Accessibility adaptations cost from $800 to $5,000 per house, according to builders. Developers instead support offering optional universal design features to homeowners for an extra charge.

The trend toward more user-friendly dwellings has started to become more popular around the country as baby boomers age, said Nancy Hitchcock, information specialist with the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State in Raleigh.

"It's a matter of human dignity and social integration," said design consultant Susan Mack, who helped a developer include universal design dwellings in two Murrieta neighborhoods several years ago.

She estimated that about 88% of buyers of the specially outfitted homes were able-bodied people who just liked the convenience of a spacious interior that could accommodate guests of differing abilities.

Murrieta's new ordinance will apply to projects larger than five lots and excludes custom-built homes, said Allen Brock, manager of Murrieta's Building and Safety Department.

The state passed a model ordinance in 2005 for municipalities to follow that stipulated universal design features that developers must offer buyers. Murrieta's law is loosely based on the state version, Brock said.

Irvine and Long Beach have explored less comprehensive universal design regulations, and Santa Monica, Sacramento and other jurisdictions have approached the state about drafting universal design statutes, said Ron Javor, assistant deputy director of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which sponsored the state model.

Dye welcomes the city's design regulations.

"It makes me really proud of my city," Dye said. "I think they're leading the way."

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