School board's Davis: I'd have voted for Erwin-Cornwallis
BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for August 31, 2009

Public Works delivers crapload o' curb cuts to one baffled Forest Hills street

IMG_0477 We're not sure which beleaguered B-leaguer in City Hall is in the line of fire for this call, but it's one that's drawing some ire from Forest Hills residents and at least one elected official alike -- though it's a call city staff are saying, so far at least, they're powerless to change.

Forest Hiils' tony Hermitage Court has received a passel of curb cuts along the circular street just off the old golf course that is now Forest Hills park.

At least nine curb cuts and access ramps have been installed, all providing accessibility to wheelchairs... with some wide enough to make one wonder if wheelchairs are now coming in double-width varieties. (One is reportedly 17 feet wide.)

The curb cuts come despite the regular and repeated presence of driveway curb cuts plenty wide to provide wheelchair accessibility, and available on the circle's interior and exterior edges. But city staff are saying that the law doesn't permit those to be used in place of shiny new curb cuts.

And they're all located within a relatively small section of the neighborhood, one which already has relatively walkable streets -- and where residents say there's not the need for more than a small number of these devices.

It's an issue that has City Councilman Eugene Brown and deputy city manager Ted Voorhees spinning right round and round.

Hermitage_court_forest_hills The City of Durham has been subject to a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice over ADA accessibility, including the presence of curb cuts and wheelchair ramps along sidewalks, as well as the general condition of sidewalks themselves.

That's led to new curb cuts and sidewalk in many parts of the city, particularly those older sections whose sidewalks were designed before such accommodation was required.

But Brown -- and many residents -- have questioned the presence of so many curb cuts on Hermitage Court.

According to a local resident active in the matter, the initial plan reportedly called for just one ramp, at Hermitage Court and Homer St., but that an engineer in the City's Public Works department indicated that either city staff or the work crews decided to install the extra ramps "since they were in the vicinity," according to this resident.

The resident goes on to say:

This situation is absolutely infuriating since the placement of the ramps is an unnecessary and unjustified extension beyond the settlement plan; wastes valuable resoruces that could go to the placement of needed sidewalks and ramps in other places in Durham; damages the character of the neighborhood; negatively impacts on the appearance of houses; damages trees; and puts ramps in places that are either out of compliance with ADA guidelines and may actually be dangerous because of their proximity to traffic lanes.

One complaint: at least one of the ramps are placed along slopes that, residents argue, are too steep to comply with ADA guidelines anyway.

Another resident did a back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the cost per ramp quoted her and estimated that it cost over $30,000 to install these ramps on Hermitage Court alone -- a move she thinks short-sighted when some areas around hospitals and schools reportedly lack full accessibility.

But somewhere it seems that some common sense could have prevailed to prevent this massive amount of concrete to be poured in one small section of a historic neighborhood.   These ramps seem to have been constructed merely for administrative convenience without regard to the needs of the handicapped or to the consultant's plan.

Several months back, 216' of new sidewalk had been installed on the street in place of existing sidewalk -- a move that led to complaints then by Durhamite Andy Widmark that other areas of Durham need city sidewalks far more than this part of Forest Hills, which is relatively quiet from a traffic perspective.

IMG_0480-1 (One email exchange references the City itself having to finance that section of sidewalk -- presumably, in place of the usual citizen petition that involves a partial assessment. Now that section is, er, served by a wide choice of new acces sramps.)

When BCR visited earlier this week, the thing most striking about the curb cuts was that they often sit cheek-by-jowl with wide driveway aprons, which themselves -- you guessed it -- connect to the sidewalks, too.

Deputy city manager Ted Voorhees pointed out in a reply to Brown that though the aprons seem like a usable alternative, they don't suffice in the eyes of the law:

This program of constructing handicapped accessible ramps is a requirement of our settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.  The specifications for such ramps typically do not allow us to consider a driveway apron as a substitute.  Accordingly, while staff may agree with some of the points below, we are under federal mandate to construct ramps even when we would prefer to build sidewalks in locations without them.  Some might consider this an unfunded federal mandate.  While I know this is frustrating to citizens at times, it is also frustrating to staff, but we have very little flexibility.

The complaint emails continue to spin on this, and Voorhees promises he's continuing to look into the matter. Look for this one to continue to evolve before all's said and done.


Ellen C

We've had similar issues come up in Watts-Hillandale. In our 'hood, curb cuts were put in at corners where there were no connecting sidewalks. We got the same explanation, too, about the Federal mandate and ADA requirements. Go figure.

Todd P

Too bad the federal mandate doesn't make them install new sidewalks and curb cuts in neighborhoods that have no sidewalks at all.

Instead, they allow property owners to determine whether new sidewalks get installed, and unless you convince half your neighbors to go along with the assessment, you get nothing.

So the "have's" get ramps they don't want and are not needed, and the "have not's" get nothing. What a screwed up way of spending tax dollars.

Grayson Baur

The City needs better lawyers. What a stupid settlement indeed. On Old Oxford Road near Roxboro, there's no sidewalk or curb ramps at all, and no shortage of citizens who would use them to walk to the grocery store from nearby neighborhoods. The City needs to use some imagination in fulfilling their mandate, and they need to give priority to underserved areas. Why is this so damn hard?

Eric W

As a recipient of part of this collection of curb cuts, I concur with the consensus of previous comments. As an employee of a state agency, I am all too familiar with state and federal mandates. However, it is my experience that there are almost always more and less creative ways to fulfill the often laudable goals behind the directives. More creative responses typically both maximize the positive impact of the goals at the least cost. I see no evidence of the city choosing the creative path in this case, much to the detriment of our neighborhood.

Arnette Atwood

Has anyone raised a question of Section 106 review on these curb cuts? Its the part of federal (and state) law that requires a review of potential negative impacts to historic resources when federal monies are involved.

I agree with the previous poster that the city needs better lawyers!


I got a notice han delivered to me early Saturday morning that I would be getting a ramp in front of my house this week. I'm in OND.

I have absolutely no problem with it. My .02

Shortpier Longwalker

My faves are the myriad curb cuts that lead to broken, heaved, weed-clogged and practically unnavigable sidewalks.

Fed up citizen

In the WHHN, a curb cut just went in at the eastern corner of Woodrow and Oval Drive. The "sidewalk" is the length of one house. There are no plans to have the sidewalk extended anywhere else in WHHN. There are no sidewalks anywhere else on Woodrow. WTF? This is Mike Woodard's street for Christ sake? This is the second time this issue has happened down the street from him? The first time the ADA issue was brought up. Fine. Even though the sidewalk itself ends in the grass, I get that. However, what I don't get is the solution. I could rent a bobcat for one hour, remove the sidewalk, fill it with dirt, plant grass, and be done with it for far cheaper than the city pays for the "curb cuts to nowhere". I'm tired of our elected city officials making excuses for wasted money and bad decisions. At some point, something needs to change in this "sidewalk" mess.


re: Old Oxford.
Grayson. Thanks for pointing out that area. Every time we take a trip to Catsburg our blood pressure rises a bit when we drive that stretch of road. To have housing for poorer folks who are less likely to have transportation within walking distance of decent grocery and other stores is great. Too many places lack those opportunities. But then to make the residents walk thru dirt, mud etc. on the side of a busy road to get there just seems plain mean.


Keep in mind that this is the same federal government to which so many seem anxious to hand over their health care administration.

Erik Landfried

I feel like I'm missing a lot of information about all this - can someone point me to a resource that explains this better?

I'm specifically looking for:

- What caused this issue in the first place
- How it was determined how many and where these improvements needed to be made
- If there is a specific plan and timeline for these improvements

It seems like everyone is just passing this off as "hey, it's a federal mandate and it doesn't make sense, but hey, that's the federal government for you." I'm not convinced that's the full story.


'Keep in mind that this is the same federal government to which so many seem anxious to hand over their health care administration.'

WTF indeed...


So... I just don't get it, as well. But from the other side of the issue.

I'm interpreting the argument against the curb cuts as a "our neighborhood doesn't have those people" argument (those people being the folks that would benefit from curb cuts). Is that really the argument posed by some of the Forest Hills residents?


Nice non-sequitur, scary Federal government (bad, bad).

There is an awful lot of griping going around here. Let's not forget why the ramps are installed- walking/wheeling down a sidewalk is far more dignified (and safer) than walking/wheeling down a road. I challenge any of you to rent a wheel chair for a day and try to get around - anywhere. Those of you who reside on Hermitage Court, your houses are still beautiful to look at and after the leaves fall and stain the new concrete, I promise the unsightly ramps will blend into the landscape.

Fed up citizen

OK. Let us try this again...

This boondoggle has nothing to do with FUNCTIONAL sidewalks and ADA compliance. The curbcuts in the WHHN that I lament are the ones on sidewalks that are ONE HOUSE LENGTH long on roads that have NO OTHER SIDEWALKS on streets that WILL NEVER have sidewalks. When this topic was brought up before, Mike Woodard said something like... "Well... I'm not happy about this either, but we have to do it because the city is getting sued for ADA compliance issues." Now, what I don't understand is... why can't we just remove the ONE HOUSE LENGTH of sidewalk on the entire stretch of Woodrow, fill it with dirt, plant some grass and call it a day. IMHO, that would be the sensible and COST EFFECTIVE WAY to handle this hurdle. What I'm wondering is why isn't this done? Does Mike W. have an answer? This is the second time this has happened right down the street from his house.

Kevin Davis

@Rob, Doug -- I'm not sure the complaints have come up over opposition to accessibility to persons with disabilities; I think the question has come up because of the number of them, and the fact that other areas where there is significant pedestrian through-traffic aren't getting them first. I was actually a little surprised myself to see what it looked like in person.

Today's H-S has good coverage of the City's perspective -- which includes a state law said to be stricter than the ADA, and which the City doesn't feel like gave it a choice.

In reality, though... I'd be shocked if the omnipresent and similarly-sloped driveways didn't get used just as frequently as ramps by a resident so needing them.

retro jordan

It's never too late to mend.

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