Jack White

Advocate for the disabled Jack White stands at the head of a steep ramp at the Citrus Plaza, warning it is dangerous to wheelchair users.

The Inverness City Council is frustrated with a popular strip plaza that a local handicapped advocate says isn’t compliant with federal laws that dictate commercial properties must be accessible to people with disabilities.

Contractor and people with disabilities advocate Jack White complained to the Inverness City Council this week that Citrus Plaza Commons, which is home to anchor stores Save-A-Lot grocery store and Family Dollar in the city, isn’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. He also said ramps are not convenient for the disabled.  

And one councilwoman is calling for a “grassroots” movement to warn the New York-based owners that people might boycott the stores unless they make the plaza more accessible.

City Manager Frank DiGiovanni told his city council bosses he would direct his building officials to visit the 238 S. U.S. 41 strip mall and see if it is in compliance. Federal law requires local governments to enforce ADA law, which includes marked handicapped parking spaces and ramps that are wheelchair accessible.

White filed an ADA discrimination complaint with the federal government in August, but wants the city council to act.

His contention is that the ramp near the Family Dollar is dangerously steep, with a slope far exceeding the 1.12 ratio slope (or 4.8 degree). A Chronicle reporter observed a ramp that exceeded that at the Family Dollar store. And if a wheelchair occupant lost control of their wheelchair, it could dangerously roll into East Highland Boulevard and into heavy traffic.

“It’s not only noncompliant, but damn dangerous,” Jack White told the city council.

 He also complained that there were no handicapped spaces near the Family Dollar or adjoining stores. That was also accurate.

ADA requires six handicapped parking spaces and one handicapped van parking space for commercial properties having between 151-200 parking spaces. The handicapped spaces are also required to have signage. The Chronicle observed one van handicapped parking space and two car handicapped spaces in front of the Save-A-Lot grocery store with only one sign and two car handicapped spaces in front of the Rexall Drugs. The Save-A-Lot store also had two ramps (which are also used for grocery carts) and the Rexall had one ramp (ADA compliant) with handrails.

So it appears the plaza is short two handicapped spaces.

The ADA does not dictate the number of ramps such a plaza requires or where they are placed. White complains that common sense tells us that the existing ramps are too far from Family Dollar and its adjacent stores.

City attorney Larry Haag said the city has no building codes requiring additional parking or ramps unless the structure is built anew or renovated.

“I don’t know what we can do,” he said.

The Citrus County Property Appraiser’s website indicates several changes and renovations to the plaza dating back to 1984, but most of those were regarding signage and renovations to individual stores.

The appraiser website lists Citrus Plaza Commons LLC, Collierville, Tennessee as owner.

The Chronicle contacted the company and one of its owners in Tennessee, but he would not give his name and said only, “We have no comment at this time.”

Buildings are not grandfathered in when it comes to adding accommodations to make them handicapped accessible or requirements to remove obstacles.     

DiGiovanni said that city staff have spoken with the owners and tried to convince them to make the plaza more accessible but to no avail.

“Right now the city’s standing is not really there from the way we interpret the rules, regulations and processes,” DiGiovanni said.

But White contends that the issue at the plaza is not one of building codes but rather one of ADA compliance.

DiGiovanni said he would meet with his building department staff and they would visit the site “and get something out this week” to the owners.

Councilwoman Jacque Hepfer called for the public to take a stand with the owners “and give them a friendly assault.”

White agreed.

“This owner isn’t going to do anything unless a fire is lit under him,” he said.  

Hepfer said the public should send the message that “if you don’t make these improvements we’ll stop shopping there, the businesses will leave. ... They need to know there’s a whole town behind them.”

Council president Ken Hinkle said maneuvering as a disabled person can be difficult.

“I agree with you 100%,” Hinkle said. “Once you become a disabled citizen, no matter the length of time, you learn the impediments out there.”

Council OKs utility rate hike  

Also in city business, the city council approved a utility rate hike averaging 2.5% annually for the next five years.

City Manager Frank DiGiovanni told the council that additional revenue was needed and the previous revenues were not keeping pace with Inverness’ water and sewer services costs and the need for capital improvements.

It was the same warning that rate consultants gave the city council this spring. The council’s unanimous vote for the increase was the second in two hearings on the issue.

Before the rate hike approval, the utilities rates were tied to the country’s consumer price index, which measures changes in the price level of household goods and services. But the rice index would not protect the city if prices fell or a recession.

 “And a 2.5% hike would put us right around the middle (for rates charged by other municipalities)” DiGiovanni previously told the council.

The city has about $10 million worth of improvements and expansions slated for the utility. The utilities serve about 4,200 water customers and 2,400 wastewater customers.

The 2.5% increase would result in an average residential family bill increase of $1.53 per month. Before the hike, the average residential bill for both water and wastewater service was $61.53 per month.

The utility consultants recommended the hike to begin fiscal 2019-2020.

Capital improvements include proposed new sewer lines along State Road 44 West, new water mains along U.S. 41 and new Inverness Highlands sewer-line extensions.

About one third of Inverness’ residents use septic systems and not the city’s wastewater system.

The average combined water and sewer rates for 19 surrounding utilities was $68.07 per month, according to a recent consultants’ report. The average Citrus County utility bill is $74.90. The proposed Inverness rate is $63.06.

Contact Chronicle reporter Fred Hiers at fred.hiers@chronicleonline.com or 352-397-5914.