Over a year has passed since this conflict between the needs of the elderly Lucas couple and the demands of Historic Preservation began. The Lucases continue to age, of course, and the eventual outcome of this conflict may come too late to do them any good. However, changes are being imposed on the Historic Preservation system in the District of Columbia, advancing the rights of the elderly and the disabled. I hope that no elderly Washingtonians will again have to face the time-consuming troubles that the Lucases have had to deal with.

The conflict began with permit rejections by the Historic Preservation Office in the fall of 2006. In a hearing of the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) on September 28, 2006, the Lucases were denied a permit for a front exit and wheelchair ramp, on the grounds that this "alteration" would not be "compatible" with the historic district, as required by the District's Historic Preservation law. (I might note here that the District's law has been amended to make the penalties for violation fierce. Originally the fine was $1000 per violation. Now the fine is $1000 per day per violation. Intended to force conformity by developers, who might accept the previous fine as merely a cost of doing business, the new penalty is extremely harsh for any homeowner tripped up in home renovations.)

In July, 2007, the Lucases returned to the HPRB, now with a proposal for a mechanical lift and adjacent staircase, to provide front access and egress with less disruption to the front, and avoiding the steepness required of a ramp. The Lucases were accompanied by representatives of the aged and the disabled. Relman & Dane, a law office that specializes in fair housing issues, argued for “aging in place”, that is, the right of longtime residents to modify their homes as necessary to cope with the vicissitudes of old age. Robert Coward, a prominent representative of the disabled, testified that the goal was not merely “access” for the disabled, but “full inclusion” of the disabled in life activities. The wheelchair lift alone would be useless for arriving able-bodied visitors, including emergency personnel, and would leave the residents isolated from the outside world, but for their back door (awkward to get to, through an alley that is steep, potholed, and treacherous).

The HPRB, oddly, agreed to a lift, but objected to the stairs, and insisted on a larger lift than the Lucases proposed. The stairs, it seems, would have been too visible, so instead of a lift just large enough for a wheelchair, and adjacent stairs for the assistant, they required a double-width lift, big enough to handle the wheelchair and the assistant. They insisted furthermore that every piece of the front porch removed for this left be kept, so that when the elder Lucases pass on, the porch could be restored to its original state.

This was not considered adequate by the Lucases and their legal advisors, who insisted that the "equal access" promised by the Fair Housing Act required that visitors be able to enter the house from the front, as they could with the stairs, but could not with the mechanical lift. So the dispute continued, with negotiations going on behind the scene. (One staffer confided to me that the Historic Preservation Office people "agonized" over this matter.)

One very positive outcome of this dispute was the compilation and publication of Historic Preservation regulations concerning the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Fair Housing Act, in October, 2007. Previously there had been no formal guidance, and permit applicants had to depend upon the mercy of the HPRB members. Now, courtesy of DC Municipal Regulations chapters 2009 and 2010, residents with disabilities have written rights to call on, and the members of the HPRB have regulations which they must follow.

The case dragged on, and was scheduled for a "Mayor's Agent" hearing in January, 2008. This is the last stop, as the representative of the Mayor is supposed to make the final decision (barring taking the matter to Superior Court). The legal advocates for the Lucases made it clear that, if they got no satisfaction in this hearing, they would take the matter to court. The hearing was abruptly postponed, and intensive negotiations continue. I believe that this means that the instruction has come down from Mayor Fenty to close this matter, by coming to some out-of-court agreement with the Lucases.

As of this writing, these last-minute negotiations continue. Whatever the outcome, the District Historic Preservation bureaucracy has been forced to yield substantially to the position that the rights of residents, aged or disabled, must be respected, and the principles of "aging in place" and "equal access" must take precedence over the esthetics of historic preservation.

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Page created January 19, 2008