Bluffton leaders working to make Heyward House wheelchair-accessible

dburley@islandpacket.comSeptember 15, 2013 

Heyward House Historic Center docent Sonie Phinney-Miller, right, gives a tour of the historic Bluffton house to Joy Tinney, of Bloomingdale, Ga., and Tinney's children, from left, Luke, 11, Caroline, 1, and Kate, 12. Officials in Bluffton are looking at making the Heyward House handicapped-accessible.

JAY KARR — Jay Karr, file photo Buy Photo

A Sun City man last week told Bluffton Town Council that the Heyward House is not wheelchair-accessible. Now Bluffton officials are reviewing the situation to figure out their next move.

John Noel, who uses a wheelchair, made his comments at a town council meeting Tuesday.

"It sends a bad message," Noel said of the lack of access. "If that's the official welcome center for the town, well, that's not very welcoming," he said after the meeting.

Town council agreed.

Mayor Lisa Sulka and councilmen Ted Huffman and Michael Raymond said making the historic house accessible is a priority.

So far, though, the town is not sure whether the house must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Debbie Szpanka, a town spokeswoman. There are some exceptions for historic structures.

On Thursday, Frank Hodge, the town's deputy director of growth management, visited the 172-year-old house in Old Town.

Szpanka said the review process is ongoing, and members of town council, town staff, and the Bluffton Historic Preservation Society, who own the house, will meet within the next two weeks.

If the house is required to comply with the act, then much of it -- including bathrooms, doors and hallways -- would have to be renovated, said Nick Maxim, president of the society.

"We're seeing what we can do to make it accessible," Maxim said. "If it doesn't have to be ADA-compliant, then we can still make it accessible without anything being done to the house structurally."

The society had a similar situation in 2008, when it built a ramp at the side of the Colcock-teel House, another historic Old Town home it owns.

A private donor gave the society $15,000 for the ramp, Maxim said.

The Heyward House's status as Bluffton's visitor center further complicates the issue, said Marie Young, an attorney for Walton Options for Independent Living, an advocacy group for people with disabilities.

Usually, a historic property such as the house receives an exemption from the American With Disabilities Act, Young said.

But the house became the visitor center in 2000 -- 10 years after the act went into effect.

"That should require it to be accessible," Young said. "But it's a case-by-case basis."

Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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