A settlement agreement has been approved to increase accessibility at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area for people with disabilities, marking the first time a national park will make such improvements in response to a lawsuit.
U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte gave preliminary approval for the settlement Thursday between the nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates and the National Park Service. Final approval is expected July 8, said Stuart Seaborn, senior staff attorney for the Disability Rights Advocates.
"This is the first class-action settlement improving access for the blind and people who use wheelchairs and walkers and such in a national park system, ever," Seaborn said. "We're hoping to use that as a model for other systems, whether it's national or state parks."
The settlement provides visitors with mobility and vision disabilities greater access across GGNRA trails, beaches, facilities and visitor's centers across the park's 75,000 acres in San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties.
Among the features are wheelchair access to trails at Lands End; wheelchair access routes at several beaches; Braille, audio and tactile orientation signs, guides and route maps; and training for guided tours.
The original lawsuit was filed in January 2008 by Lori Gray, a wheelchair user with a visual impairment, and other plaintiffs that joined included the California Council of the Blind. Disability-rights advocates had tried to come to an agreement on the allegations of lack of access for a few years before taking legal action.
After a U.S. District Court ruling granted parts of the plaintiffs' requests but left some areas of the park excluded from the disability protections, both parties decided to enter into a settlement, Seaborn said.
"We decided it was best for both sides to globally settle the case instead of doing it piecemeal and litigate multiple pieces of the park system separately," he said.
Given the lawsuit was filed in the midst of the economic downturn, Seaborn said: "We're very pleased to be getting something like this. It wasn't an easy time and with any case like this when it's the first of its kind, it's going to experience some resistance."
GGNRA spokeswoman Alexandra Picavet declined to comment on continuing litigation and the U.S. Department of Justice, which manages litigation for the federal government, could not be reached Monday.
On top of the required improvement projects to be rolled out within seven years, the GGNRA would spend at least $3 million on other accessibility projects, including a boardwalk at one or more beaches in Marin County.