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State mandate: Clearwater's lifeguard station needs to be handicapped-accessible

The Clearwater Beach lifeguard station is being renovated and the state is forcing city officials to make the upper floors handicapped-accessible — though the only people who use the space are lifeguards. A waiver request was turned down.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

The Clearwater Beach lifeguard station is being renovated and the state is forcing city officials to make the upper floors handicapped-accessible — though the only people who use the space are lifeguards. A waiver request was turned down.

CLEARWATER — Clearwater Beach's lifeguards are in great shape. Most were competitive swimmers in college. They routinely swim, run and lift weights to maintain their edge.

But government regulations are requiring that their headquarters on the beach be made handicapped-accessible, even though the only people who ever use the two-story building are the lifeguards.

Another example of your tax dollars at work.

"It's odd. Obviously no one here is handicapped. No one in a wheelchair has ever asked to come up here," head lifeguard Donovan Burns said during an interview on the building's second floor. He noted that disabled people can borrow fat-tired beach wheelchairs from the lifeguard station for free, but those are stored on the ground floor.

The little yellow building near Pier 60 has to be brought into compliance with the state building code and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

This was triggered when Clearwater recently decided to spend $455,700 of revenue from beach parking meters to renovate and expand the lifeguard building. Among other things, the city will be adding a third floor so the lifeguards can see the entire beach better.

Clearwater officials are a bit baffled by the order to make the upper floors handicapped-accessible. They expected to get a waiver so they could skip that requirement, but the state turned them down.

"Our premise was that a lifeguard has to be physically fit. If you can't go down stairs, you can't be a lifeguard. And the building isn't open to the public," said Clearwater parks and recreation director Kevin Dunbar, who oversees the beach rescue team. "But common sense doesn't really play into it.

"They said, 'What happens if the public comes in on a tour or something like that? You have to make it accessible.' "

Florida officials say rules are rules, and that Clearwater has to follow the state building code.

The Florida Building Commission says it turned down the city's request for a waiver because it wouldn't cost more than 20 percent of the construction job to make the building accessible to the disabled.

"This is basically a black and white issue for us," said the commission's spokesman, James Miller.

So, how much will this cost?

Clearwater has ruled out installing an elevator in the building. Instead, engineers are planning a wheelchair lift attached to a stairway railing.

Clearwater's City Council will likely hire a construction firm next month to renovate the lifeguard building. Work could start in September and must be finished by next spring break.

It's not clear yet exactly how much the lift will cost. Dunbar recalled that, years ago, the city also was ordered to install a wheelchair lift for the home dugout at Bright House Field, where the Philadelphia Phillies have their spring training.

That one cost $18,000.

"It has sat unused for seven years," Dunbar said.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

State mandate: Clearwater's lifeguard station needs to be handicapped-accessible 07/22/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 22, 2010 7:48pm]
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