St. Albans officials have enlisted the help of an architect to make the Town Office accessible to all people.

The office, which holds the selectmen chambers and the historical society meeting room, can only be accessed by a staircase from the public entrance near the parking lot and from the Town Hall upstairs.

“I’ve seen people with oxygen tanks and canes come down the stairs,” Town Manager Rick Fisher said. “Some people will turn around, hold the railing and come down backwards.” 

In the past, people have honked their car horns in the parking lot to signal to staff members they cannot make it down the stairs and the staff will tend to them from their cars, according to Fisher.

Fisher said he began noticing the lack of accessibility when he became town manager last August. Since then, he has brainstormed with the selectmen on how to improve accessibility to the office.

At the annual town meeting March 6, 48 voters approved an article for the town to pay architect John Gordon of Bucksport $1,500 to do a study on the building for a possible renovation.

Gordon has designed a variety of buildings, from public schools to university buildings to municipal buildings.

Since the induction of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, Gordon has put accessibility in the forefront of his work.

“The fundamental goal of ‘universal design’ is to fully consider the needs of people with physical disabilities and challenges,” Gordon wrote on his website. “I have a long-held belief that our built environment should be accessible to all people.”

Gordon has won awards from the Disability Rights Center of Maine and SustainABLE for ME Design Awards for creating accessible buildings.

Fisher said he had a specific vision for the architect he wanted for the job.

“I wasn’t just looking for just anyone,” Fisher said. “I started researching architects that do work to bring buildings up to ADA compliance I contacted him because he specializes in this.” 

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all aspects of public life.

The ADA Guide for Small Towns, published in 2000, states that when a program, service or activity is located in a facility that existed before Jan. 26, 1992, towns must make sure that building is accessible to those with disabilities.

When these services are located in buildings that are not accessible to all, a town can relocate the programs to an accessible facility, provide the service in another manner that meets ADA requirements or make modifications to the building to provide accessibility.

The building that holds the St. Albans Town Hall and Town Office was built in 1910 and was permitted to be used — under a grandfather clause — as a historic building, according to Fisher.

“It was built before 1990,” Fisher said, “so that’s how its come under the category of a historic building.”

The ADA does not require eligible historic buildings to comply if renovations would seriously interfere with the historical integrity of the building.

But Fisher said the building’s historical significance does not change the fact it should be more accessible to all people.

“This Town Hall is special to this community,” Fisher said. “People have taken a lot of pride in it, but I’d like to see improvements to the Town Office.”

The Town Hall has seen renovations over the past 10 years, including the addition of a handicap ramp on one side of the building.

“I’m thinking maybe we could do a walking ramp on the other side of the building and reconfigure the office,” Fisher said. “I know other towns have put in elevators, so that could be an option.”

Although Gordon’s architectural assessment is still in the works, Fisher said he was looking forward to making improvements that will benefit the entire community.

“I’d like to see these improvements,” Fisher said, “because we’re here to serve the public, and we want to do a better job of it.”

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