Pair sues for more disabled access

EDITOR'S NOTE: This corrects an earlier version of the story. Arnie Pike did not sue the Orange County Transportation Authority. He criticized its accessibility, but did not sue the agency.

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BALBOA ISLAND — The Balboa Island Ferry and the shops along Marine Avenue are some of the most charming places in Southern California.

That's unless you are disabled, Arnie Pike contends.

Pike, a wheelchair-bound man, and another disabled woman are suing the city to make Balboa Island more accessible. They claim there aren't enough disabled parking spaces along the main shopping street, that the sidewalks are too crowded with benches and signs, and that the Balboa Island Ferry is inaccessible.

After two years of negotiations and court proceedings, the parties are going to trial.

"I want it to be improved for everybody who is disabled," Pike said, "so we can all use the facilities like normal people."

Pike, 72, began using a wheelchair after he suffered a stroke in the 1990s. His co-plaintiff, Christie Rudder, 48, was in a car accident that left her a partial quadriplegic. She also uses a wheelchair.

Rudder has visited family on Little Balboa Island for years, her attorney says, and around 2005 she was unable to park in her normal spaces because the city removed three disabled spots along Marine Avenue.

There is still one disabled space just off Marine, next to the Balboa Island Fire Station. But Pike said that he is unable to extend his wheelchair ramp from his van because the curb there is too high. Because of this and other barriers, the pair claim, the city is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws.

The city contends that the areas in question, including the Marine Avenue area, are accessible. The sidewalks "exceed the requirements of the ADA regulations," the city claims in court records.

It voluntarily installed the disabled space on Park Avenue, the city states, as the ADA rules do not require public agencies to provide this type of disabled parking.

"The city goes out and tries to help the handicapped and a guy like this challenges it," said Councilman Ed Selich, who represents the area. "It seems this guy is punishing the city for going the extra mile."

Pike complained at City Council meetings in 2006 and 2007, but he said that nothing was done. When he called to complain to the city manager at that time, Homer Bludeau, Pike said another representative from the city threatened to remove the only space. Eventually, he decided to take the city to federal court.

Pike and Rudder are suing under California law and the ADA, which requires local governments to provide curb cuts — the indentations created to allow wheelchairs to move from the street onto sidewalks — and to make areas such as the shopping district on Balboa Island generally accessible for disabled individuals.

Because parking is so limited near Marine, Pike says he has to park on side streets or to take the ferry from the Balboa Peninsula.

"That's just the island. Everything is small down here," said Rhonda Binder, 48, who was helping her son, a Boy Scout, sell popcorn on the Marine Avenue sidewalk on Thursday. "There are just certain parameters they should deal with."

But when Pike tries to park on Balboa Peninsula instead and take the ferry, he says it presents a set of other issues.

First, he can't roll from the dock onto the barge because they are at different levels, he says.

The ferry is mentioned in the lawsuit because the city licenses it to transport cars, but the city says it's not responsible for its accessibility.

Besides, the city says that ferry operators use a mat to bridge the gap, and that its process provides enough access. The ADA, the city says, doesn't require physical or structural alterations when other methods are sufficient.

Pike claimed that he plans to sue the ferry separately. He has asked the operators to place a steel plate on a hinge, and it could swing from the ferry down to the dock.

"I'm not asking them to alter the looks of the ferry, only to make it accessible to people with wheelchairs," he said. "It would be cheaper than a lawsuit, but they refuse to do it."

Blair Smith, an operator on the ferry, pointed to a yellow board that they use to bridge the gap on Thursday. He mentioned that they help disabled people on and off.

"It's really easy," he said.

That's not good enough for Pike.

"Yes, they are helpful, but that is not the point," he said.

If Pike gets off the ferry, he says the route he wants to take from the ferry to Marine would be down Park Avenue, and the curbs are not designed for wheelchair access, he says.

A visit this week showed that the named streets have curb cuts, while the alleys appear to have a lip separating the sidewalk and the road.

Pike and Rudder are seeking that the city make alterations to comply with ADA rules, for damages including emotional pain and suffering, and for legal fees.

This isn't Pike's first ADA lawsuit. He has sued local governments and agencies to get more disabled access to facilities. He sued a farmer in Placentia in 2007 because his wheelchair sunk into gravel and he was unable to access a fruit stand.

Pike has also sued the "Dancing with the Stars" television show because the CBS studio where it is filmed did not have disabled-accessible seating.

In each case he says that money has not been the focus, but that he wants changes to be made first. He does seek damages, he says, to heighten the threat.

"That's the only way to get the attention of anybody," he says.

Pike has settled with cities in the past, but was unwilling to disclose the terms.

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