Disabled vet’s lawsuit accuses Colorado Springs, neighbors of violating accessibility laws
Author: Conrad Swanson, The Gazette - February 26, 2018 - Updated: February 26, 2018
Rolling his wheelchair to the edge of a six-foot gap in the sidewalk near his home in eastern Colorado Springs, Chris Sweeney grabbed a collapsed “sidewalk out” sign and shoved it under his arm.
He used the improvised crutch to cross the gaping hole and plopped himself back into his wheelchair, which his wife had pushed to the other side.
“This is a big ‘f— you’ from the city,” Sweeney said.
Fifty yards to the north he repeated the exercise.
After four years of these problems in his Stetson Hills neighborhood, Sweeney said he’s had enough. On Feb. 15, he and his wife, Nikole Sweeney, filed a lawsuit against the city and others. They allege that Colorado Springs is woefully out of compliance with federal laws demanding equal access for the disabled.
The problem exists around every corner in Sweeney’s neighborhood and he said his family’s pleas for help have been ignored by city, state and federal representatives. Even the majority of their neighbors have turned against them. But the Sweeneys say their fight is for the benefit of every veteran and disabled person in town, many of whom, they say, undoubtedly face similar challenges every day.
City representatives have acknowledged to Sweeney and The Gazette that parts of the neighborhood were built in violation of city codes. Citing the lawsuit, city representatives will no longer comment on Sweeney’s complaints or the extent of disabled accessibility issues.
Representatives for another defendant in the lawsuit, Diversified Property Management LLC, declined to comment and a third defendant, the Stetson Hills Master Home Owners Association, Inc., did not return messages seeking comment.
City Councilwoman Yolanda Avila, who is legally blind, said at least some of the responsibility is the city’s – it’s not Sweeney’s duty to ensure accessibility.
Avila said she was drawn to public office to provide equal access to those with different needs. She and Sweeney often face the same challenges, as does much of Colorado Springs’ disabled population.
Sweeney said he’s largely been bound to his wheelchair since being struck twice by lightning.
He was first hit in May, 2004, while on duty in the Air Force. Lightning struck the information technology building he worked in and traveled through his body. Only his magnetic name tag kept the shock from stopping his heart, he said.
Then, in June, 2006, Sweeney said he was driving with his hand outside the window of his truck, resting on the roof. The second bolt hit. He noticed his legs were tingling, but managed to drive himself to the hospital before realizing he couldn’t stand.
Now, Sweeney uses his wheelchair – and crutches occasionally – to get around. He’s done his best to stay active by playing sports or spending time with his wife and four sons, two of which are autistic and require special attention. But he’s limited.
“We had to change our lives to what the city has decided to allow for our neighborhood and surrounding areas,” he said.
City rejects responsibility
Enacted in the early 1990s, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires governments to provide the disabled equal access to different facets of public life, including schools, workplaces and transportation, said Julian G.G. Wolfson, the Denver attorney representing the Sweeneys.
Under the law, Colorado Springs must abide by ADA regulations in residential areas, Wolfson said. To many, including the Sweeneys, curb ramps and sidewalks “obviously are necessary to reach various public accommodations.”
Colorado Springs spokeswoman Kim Melchor said the city has done all it can and no longer bears any responsibility for Sweeney’s accessibility concerns. Instead, the homeowners association might be the only organization that can help, she said.
But Sweeney said the association is part of the problem. Its rules prohibit parking in the street, and residents forced to park in short driveways often block the sidewalk with their vehicles. When the group was confronted, its members either dragged their feet to perform the bare minimum of services or flat out refused to help, he said.
Members of the association have ridiculed the family, questioned Sweeney’s disability and his service to the country and released his private health care information to the public, he said.
Spurned by the city and the association, Sweeney then turned to the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration for help. Amy Ford, CDOT’s director of communication, said Sweeney’s problems are not in her organization’s purview.
The Federal Highway Administration might have some authority. Its website says state and local governments are required to “ensure that persons with disabilities have access to the pedestrian routes in the public right of way.” However, spokesman Doug Hecox would not say if the requirements relate to Sweeney’s situation.
Without curb ramps, those with disabilities “are forced to travel in streets and roadways and are put in danger or are prevented from reaching their destination; some people with disabilities may simply choose not to take the risk and will not venture out of their homes or communities,” the administration’s site says.
Hecox acknowledged that his organization received a complaint from Sweeney in late 2016 and began an investigation. A “formal response” to the complaint is being prepared, he said, without elaborating.
Sweeney said he has already given up hope the federal agency would help him.
Codes not followed
Blocked sidewalks present a pervasive issue in Sweeney’s neighborhood, he said.
The area’s development plan outlined 18-foot-long driveways – which fit the city’s zoning code at the time – and was approved by the Planning Department in 1999, Melchor said. But when the development was built, the approved plans weren’t followed and driveways were shorter than the city’s requirements.
Because the city will no longer comment on the case it’s unclear why inspectors didn’t ensure the development fit the approved plans. It’s also unclear whether other developments in town also don’t comply.
Cracked or improperly angled curb ramps also litter the neighborhood, Sweeney said. Others, that he calls “orphan ramps,” have no connecting ramp and only serve to dump those why rely on them into the street without offering a route back onto a nearby sidewalk. The vehicles blocking sidewalks and damaged or useless curb ramps make many of the neighborhood’s amenities, including Snowy River Park, a nearby grocery store and bus stops, largely inaccessible for the disabled, Sweeney said.
The problems became apparent almost immediately after the Sweeneys moved into their home in early 2014. After multiple requests, the homeowners’ association removed its ban on parking in the street, but did not require residents whose driveway were too short to avoid blocking sidewalks to park along the curb, Sweeney said.
For a short time, police officers would ticket vehicles blocking sidewalks, but they often took hours to respond and eventually they stopped responding entirely, Sweeney said.
Melchor says the city has responded to at least eight of Sweeney’s requests.
Those actions yielded a handicapped sign in front of the family’s house and some corrective work on their driveway curb, she said. In addition, the city has taken care of shrubs blocking sidewalks and conducted a traffic study on nearby streets.
A new intersection signal and crosswalk is scheduled to be built at Tutt Boulevard and Iceberg Pass Way this year, Melchor said. And the city spent more than $30,000 in “concrete and ramp improvements” in the neighborhood last year.
But really nothing’s been improved, Sweeney maintains.
And the neighbors have begun to push back as well.
“We’ve been cursed at. We have been chased,” Chris Sweeney said. “In instances where (neighbors) block and see us coming, they laugh and won’t move.”
“Our children should be able to go outside without worrying that they’re going to get shouted at,” Nikole Sweeney said.
The Sweeneys said they haven’t moved to escape the frustrations because there’s no guarantee another neighborhood wouldn’t be just as inaccessible.
Plus, Wolfson said it’s not the couple’s responsibility to move because the city hasn’t complied with federal laws.
“It causes strife. It’s hard on Nikole, hard on the kids,” Chris Sweeney said. “The kids don’t understand why we can’t do things. … The kids start crying and the stress level goes up.”
So far none of the defendants have responded to the Sweeneys’ lawsuit, which has requested a jury trial.