People in wheelchairs can no longer traverse several formerly handicapped-accessible beach access paths on Sunset Beach. That's because the wheelchair ramps have been replaced with stairs.
That work has left some wheelchair-accessible signs obsolete, and it may take city officials several months to remove those signs at 81st Avenue and other access points where wheelchair ramps have been replaced with steep stairs, city Public Works Director Jim Murphy said Friday.
Last December, the city began a $323,000 project to rebuild 18 beach access paths, ramps and dune walkovers.
Where possible, the city did replace handicapped-accessible beach access paths with ramps. But in some, the dunes grew too high, creating a ramp slope that would be too steep to meet safety requirements.
"Some of the ramps and walkovers were in pretty bad shape and were overgrown by the dunes," Murphy said. Murphy said the city had no choice.
Under rules set by the state Department of Environmental Protection, the city could not damage existing dune structures.
Once the work is done, Murphy said, the city will install new handicapped signs and parking space designations.
But for now, the handicapped sign at 81st Avenue points the way to steep stairs on the boardwalk that crosses the sand dunes along Sunset Beach and ends with stairs on the other side.
"I've watched handicapped people just look at it and turn around and leave," said Jonathan Wissker, a St. Pete Beach resident who regularly rides his bicycle to Sunset Beach.
Just to the north at 82nd Avenue, a wheelchair ramp climbs up the eastern face of the dunes to a "viewing deck" that looks over a set of stairs descending to the beach.
"It just doesn't make sense in this day and age to replace a handicapped access ramp with stairs," Wissker said. "I don't know what they could have been thinking."
Murphy pointed out that of the 23 beach access points along the city's 3.3 miles of beach, 11 are fully accessible with ramps on both sides of the dune slopes, and seven are "partly accessible," with ramps allowing people in wheelchairs to get to the boardwalk along the top of the dunes.
On the south end of Sunset Beach, there are seven fully handicapped-accessible beach access ramps from the parking lot to the beach, he said.
"We know it is not perfect, but we believe we have met the intent of reasonable access," Murphy said, while agreeing the current signs do "look a little funny," especially when guiding disabled beach visitors to a set of stairs.
Once the project, which was paid for with state and federal grants, is completed, he said the city plans to put a map on the city's Web site showing all beach access points and parking areas, including those that are wheelchair-accessible.