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
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
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