Hawai‘i County finally nearing finish line to make all beach parks ADA compliant
March 26, 2023, 4:00 AM HST
Wheelchair bound Pauline Aughe loves the water, but she goes to the ocean less frequently over the years because most of Hawai‘i County’s beach parks provided limited to no access to those with mobility challenges.
Aughe, who was born with no arms or legs, said when her son was younger “it wasn’t that big of a deal” because her family went to the few beach parks that did have access.
Now, her son is 17, and he “wants to go to Richardson’s or Hāpuna where the waves are bigger,” the 47-year-old said. “We have to make a decision as a family where I don’t go or sit far, far away.”
For Aughe, the lack of access to the beach parks is passive discrimination for those with disabilities.
Hawai‘i County has been actively working to make all its parks more inclusive. Several county-owned parks have undergone or are currently being renovated to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Projects include ramps, concrete walkways, seating, ADA-compliant bathrooms and ADA parking stalls.
The Act passed by Congress is meant to protect people with disabilities from discrimination. It requires federal, state and local governments to provide equal access to buildings, community programs, services or activities. And in Hawaiʻi County’s case, it also requires equitable access to its beach parks.
But in 1997, with little progress made by the county to meet ADA compliance at its beach parks, a lawsuit was filed against the county demanding it follow the federal law. According to the suit, one of the plaintiffs in the case, John Hartman, had attempted many times to access Kahalu‘u Beach Park and La‘aloa (also known as Magic Sands Beach Park), both in West Hawai‘i, and found access was limited for a person in a wheelchair.
“None of the parks that he frequented had accessible ramps, hand rails, accessible routs or any bathrooms for the disabled,” the 1997 lawsuit stated.
Another plaintiff was Alexa Russel and her then 9-year-old son Laak, who was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and spastic diplegia when he was 11 months old and needed to use a walker. The lawsuit said it was impossible for Laak to maneuver into the bathrooms at Mahukona Beach Park: “Among other things, the facilities have no grab bars, have inadequate space for safe ingress and egress, have not special features at all making them accessible to disabled persons.”
On June 4, 1998, in response to the lawsuit, Hawaiʻi County entered into a stipulated agreement that established how the county would work to identify parks that were not in compliance and how they would make them compliant.
A transition plan was prepared for the parks and approved by the County Council in mid-2000. The tentative completion date of all necessary modifications and renovations was 12 years from the date the County Council accepted the self-evaluation.
In 2000, Hawai‘i County began identifying and upgrading its parks facilities. After surveying 240 parks and recreation facilities, 35 were deemed in need of upgrades to provide equitable access.
For various reasons, the county never came close to making that 12-year deadline.
As work began on the projects, Parks and Recreation Director Maurice Messina said severe disparities surfaced between the original ADA projects’ scope of work and construction cost estimates and actual scope of work and costs. Time and delivery issues came into play because of necessary permits and reviews, and there also were design costs that weren’t factored into the effort.
The County asked the court for a time extension and reprioritization of sites, which was granted. As a result, Messina said the County obtained approval for a modified 4-year plan that extended the deadline for the completion of improvements at the 35 park sites to Dec. 31, 2016.
That deadline also wasn’t met.
So far, 20 projects have been completed, with nine more projects in active construction, including Magic Sands.
Messina said the department continues to be challenged by various issues that have forced many of the projects to be delayed. While the COVID-19 pandemic played a part in pushing work back, Messina said there have been construction delays due to a lack of materials, including handrails.
The county also has struggled with vandalism and theft at many of the construction sites. People have stolen tools, broken components and caused problems with graffiti, he said.
“Someone tried to steal an entire playground at Kahuku, which caused months of delays,” Messina said, adding that items have been broken “for no apparent reason.”
Messina said his department is also trying to complete this task while being short-staffed.
“These projects are our number one priority, but we’re trying to keep everything going all at once,” he said. “These projects are so expansive. When they’re done, they’ll benefit the public for decades.”
Messina said work is nearly finished at Kahuku in Ocean View.
Hawaiʻi County is engaged in ongoing quarterly briefings with the federal magistrate judge assigned to this case. The County informs Hartman’s counsel and the court on its progress, highlighting achievements, noting procedural and permitting concerns and delays, and regularly updating the status for all remaining projects.
The Countyʻs progress to become ADA compliant also is monitored by the State of Hawaiʻi. Following the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the state formed the Disability and Communication Access Board. Its function was meant to provide guidance to state and county agencies during the design and construction of new buildings or improvements to existing facilities to ensure ADA compliance.
Like Hawaiʻi County, Duane Buote, facility access coordinator with the board, said all state and county agencies had to undergo a transition plan to ensure its buildings and parks were compliant. The board isn’t an approving agency, said Kirby Shaw, executive director for the board, but its reviews of compliance also help to prevent lawsuits.
Currently, the Hawaiʻi County projected completion date for all its remaining beach park ADA projects is the end of 2024.
Francis Wong Stadium at Ho’olulu Complex was added to the ADA transition plan. It is nearly completed. Also coming to the end of construction are Hilo Bayfront, Pana‘ewa Zoo, Pa‘auilo and Nā‘ālehu parks. ‘Āhalanui was permanently omitted due to lava inundation caused by the 2018 eruption of Kīlauea.
Miloli‘i park is in various stages of design, and Pāhala Pool has been awarded for construction and is pending permitting issues.
Messina said this project has gone through various County administrations and is a large undertaking. In the past two years, Messina said the county has spent $30.3 million on various projects.
“We’ve put an all-out effort to get these projects completed,” Messina said. “It’s something that we need to do. It’s our number one priority in the department to get these projects finished.”
The initial estimated cost established between 1997 and 2000 for the modifications necessary to become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act was $15.1 million. That funding would have been appropriated over a 12-year period.
Funding for the construction has come from federal entities and County general obligation bonds. So far, the County has encumbered or spent more than $19 million on the remaining projects.
The County has secured a general obligation bond in the amount of $25 million that is dedicated to the completion of the projects in the active construction or earlier phases of completion. Overall, the County has spent approximately $42 million on construction and design costs for the projects.
Aughe also is a member of the board and sits on the parking committee. She thinks the county’s work to make its beach parks ADA-compliant is a step forward, but not all that needs to be done.
“It’s great to have a ramp, but play happens in the sand and in the water,” Aughe said. “The idea of having fun is not being limited to what I can or cannot do.”
She said there are many programs supported by various local governments that provide wheelchair-accessible beach chairs. Aughe said these types of chairs would allow her to touch the water without her husband having to carry her and allow her to take a walk on the beach with him.
“The fact that they [Hawai‘i County] don’t have programs that support that is mind-blowing,” she said.
Messina said the county has seven Mobi Mats that are available for public use. The mats provide a pathway for those wheelchair-bound to get to the ocean.
But for now, the priority is to complete the projects still left to become ADA compliant and satisfy the lawsuit.
ADA Compliant Lawsuit by Tiffany De Masters on Scribd