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ADA compliance in Uptown: Butte-Silver Bow officials, business owners talk about challenges

Business want Uptown Butte to be more accessible
Butte business owners and disability rights advocates want a more accessible Uptown
Posted at 8:10 PM, Apr 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-01 22:10:40-04

BUTTE — After a new medical practice spoke out recently about facing roadblocks from the county in their months-long quest to build an ADA-compliant ramp on the public right-of-way in front of their business, city-county officials are now offering their take on the ordeal.

Jamie Decker, a Montana board-certified nurse practitioner and CEO of Top Deck Medical Aesthetics and Wellness, stands in front of her shop on Granite Street and gestures down the block.

"You know, there's two [ramps] on the same block and then one over at the Standard. We're just asking for very similar ramp designs," says Decker.

Decker has been working with Butte-Silver Bow since July to find a solution to her problem, but after meetings with officials from the county roads department, community development department, and the ADA coordinator, a solution is yet to materialize.

"There is no procedure with Butte-Silver Bow, right now, to apply to encroach on our public right-of-way to build ADA accessibility to a private business. So that is—I know it’s a lot of words...," says Karen Byrnes, Butte-Silver Bow County's community development director.

Byrnes and her department worked with Decker to secure Urban Revitalization Agency grants and loans to update Decker's building which is not historic but has been around since the turn of the last century.

Decker says she's grateful for the matching grants and loans that in all equal over $400,000 in renovations to the building and appears to be perfect with the exception of the two-foot drop at the front entrance, an impossible barrier for anyone with a disability.

Decker says the solution to this problem is to build an ADA-compliant ramp that would accommodate her patients. Byrnes says the issue is more complicated than simply building a ramp on the public right-of-way and her colleague, the county’s ADA coordinator, James Ouellette agrees.

Both Byrnes and Ouellette say there's no policy in place to grant Decker an easement, so their hands are tied until a policy is created and the only entity that can grant Decker the opportunity to build a ramp is the city council.

"So there has to be a better policy and so without that policy, we won’t recommend it because we don’t want to entrust, you know, taxpayer funds on something that we’re going to be held liable for. But that doesn’t mean that we are opposing it—we don’t oppose it in any way," says Ouellette.

Exchanges between the different departments, including some with the county attorney say they can't recommend Decker's ramp to the city council. There are too many variables that are not solidified, including questions of who will insure a ramp, who will maintain a ramp, and what happens to a ramp if the property is sold.

Ouellette stepped into his role a few months before taking on the ramp request, just a few months before Top Deck Medical's fall opening where Decker had to drag out a clunky portable ramp to accommodate those who could not make it over the giant front step.

So, this is his first ramp but it’s not the first time Uptown businesses have been faced with the issue of becoming ADA compliant, and it’s not the first ramp in Uptown Butte. In fact, there are three ramps in Top Deck Medical Aesthetics’s neighborhood alone. The issue of ADA compliance has long plagued Uptown businesses.

"There’s a lot of people that are disabled that are very independent and if they don’t see that, they just assume that you don’t have access available for them to come into the restaurant, and that’s a disadvantage to all of us business owners," says Sonia Zachow, chef and owner of La Casa Toscana on Park Street.

Zachow has been in business for 11 years and has spent nearly six of those years at her current location. When she renovated her old building she was not granted permission to put in an ADA-compliant ramp. She now shares a portable ramp with the business next door.

Zachow worries that even the appearance of not having a ramp might deter business to her popular Italian restaurant. After all, the only time you see a portable ramp is when it's being used.

Disability rights advocate Michelle Lewis with Ability Montana agrees with Zachow. She says she feels unwelcome in Uptown Butte.

"Butte always says that we take care of our own, but I don’t see how they’re taking care of me and helping me have access to this building or any of the Uptown buildings that don’t have these amenities. I don’t feel like I’m included. And so that leaves me left out," says Lewis.

At the beginning of March, the county put out a request for proposals for a plan that they hope will clear up the issue of not having a proper policy in place. They acknowledge it’s a slow-moving process.

In the meantime, Jamie Decker says she doesn’t have time to wait. Her patients need access now.

"Ultimately, we have to have ADA access for the clinic. So, what we are asking for is reasonable accommodation onto the sidewalk into the public right-of-way," says Decker.

Decker cites Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act which was signed into law in 1990. She says according to an engineering firm that evaluated her property, the interior and foundation of her 125-year-old building cannot be altered so it falls on the city to address the issue with a ramp on the exterior of her facility.

"It does default to the city to allow for reasonable accommodation to allow for a portion of the sidewalk for a ramp. So, legally I think that also needs to be looked at because that’s what the law does say," says Decker.

And the county acknowledges there's more work to do.

"Our office and our role that we play in incentivizing investment in these buildings, we could play a greater role in advising folks up front before they get too far down the road with their development that they need to think about accessibility, right? That’s something that we can do, and we can do better at that, I think," says Byrnes.