WEST ORANGE, NJ — A family’s fight to build wheelchair ramps at their house on Conforti Avenue finally came to a close June 21, when the West Orange Zoning Board of Adjustment voted to approve a variance that will allow Stephanie Roman and Abenimbola Laniyan to install ramps in the front and back of their house for their 15-year-old son Ethan Roman, who has cerebral palsy. Finally approved unanimously by seven Zoning Board members, it was the application’s third time on the board’s agenda.
The requested variance was questioned when a neighbor filed a lawsuit against the family, saying that the proposed ramps would encroach on their property line. This ongoing process has prevented the Roman family, who currently live in the Bronx, from moving into the house on Conforti Avenue, as there is no way to get Ethan into the house without the ramps. The board, at its April 19 meeting, had said the family and their architect, Kevin Pellon, should discuss alternate designs with the neighbors. At the next meeting on May 17, the board carried the variance application to the next agenda for the same reasons.
At the June 21 meeting, Zoning Board Chairman Bruce Buechler recused himself from voting on the application for the ramps because his law firm represents Deutsche Bank, from which the Roman family purchased the house. Elizabeth Durkin, the family’s lawyer, asked that Vice Chairman Philip Neuer recuse himself from voting because of an ex-parte conversation he had with Pellon after the May meeting, which is not permitted under the law.
Neuer deferred to the board’s attorney, Alice Beirne, when asked to recuse himself. Beirne determined that Neuer could vote impartially, and he was allowed to remain a voting member of the board.
Charles Stewart Jr., the engineer hired by the Roman family to design the ramps, presented the board with revised plans at the meeting.
“We’ve now pulled the ramp off the house and we can now reach the porch area and go toward the north part of the property, and then we turn and cut back to the sidewalk,” Stewart said. “We made those revisions to the plan in order to preserve the landscape there. We still have similar ramp configuration as the original plan.”
Stewart said that a ramp that slopes straight down from the front stoop of the house would be about 8 feet high. To compensate for the height, the length would have to be longer. He also addressed a ramp that will be built so that Ethan Roman can access the house’s back deck and side yard.
“You have to eliminate the stairs, and then provide a ramp that will get you to the back of the house,” Stewart said. “There’s only about a 2-foot drop from the back of the house to the driveway. So it’s sloping down alongside the house.”
When asked by Durkin, Stewart said he is familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and aware that while single-family homes do not have to meet ADA requirements, they remain a guideline. The plan Stewart proposed does not meet the requirements, but he said it comes close.
Stewart also addressed a question about changes that would have potentially altered the sidewalk, saying that the new design would allow the ramp to reach the curb so Ethan would be able to get into a car.
“When the ramp comes down and gets to the sidewalk, and you come across the sidewalk, how do you get to the curb?” he said. “I had a conversation with the owner, and what they do is, they pull the van up and the ramp extends to the sidewalk, so Ethan would come down this ramp and then he would come on to the ramp that is a part of the van. An additional piece of concrete in that area is not necessary.”
Pellon also spoke at the meeting, presenting the revised architectural plan for the ramps. Another architect, Peter Ricci, had been hired by the board and sworn in at the meeting, and Durkin questioned why he was there. According to Neuer and Beirne, the board wanted to work with an architect to review the plans. Durkin said that since Ricci was not at either of the two prior meetings about the variance, he should not be able to ask questions or comment at the June 21 meeting. She also said the application was being treated differently than similar past applications because the board could not remember another instance in which an architect had been hired to work on wheelchair ramps. As a result, Ricci was relieved from participating in the discussion with Pellon.
“There’s a qualitative aspect to ADA, which is that any design should let Ethan enjoy his house,” Pellon said, when Durkin asked him to clarify that wheelchair ramps are not just a safety measure. “Access to the backyard, access to the deck, access to the street. These are part of the goals that we have.”
Pellon went into more detail about the ramp that will be built in the back of the house.
“In the rear, we’re building all of the ramp next to the deck, where by the time it reaches the rear right-hand corner of the deck, we’re on a concrete walk,” he said. “That takes him along the property line towards the corner of the house and the corner of the house is where the slope begins for those steps that make the difference between the side yard and the front.”
“In my view, this is a clear-cut application,” John McDonough, a planner for the Roman family, said at the meeting. “The benefit of this application is lifesaving, to allow a handicapped individual to have safe accessibility to and from his house. This is not a mere convenience, this is again, lifesaving.”
Several members of the public were at the meeting to support the Roman family and urge the board to vote in favor of granting the variance, including Doug Adams, a resident and member of the Mayor’s Program for Individuals with Disabilities.
“I want to welcome you,” Adams said to the Roman family at the meeting. “I also want to say that it is unfortunate that your entry into West Orange starts with the system. Because systems are always laborious and they can never really connect with the heart of people. But I think that you’ll find that West Orange is a community that can be a forever community that your son and you guys can live in in your forever home.”
Adams said he has a daughter with special needs and understands the importance of living in a community that knows and supports her.
“I want you to know that when you get done with this process, you will find that you’ve picked the right area and you fought the right fight for your son’s home.”
Resident Joanne Desimone also spoke passionately in favor of the board granting the variance.
“I’m here as a member of the community, as a special educator and a writer who has studied disability issues,” Desimone said. “Something I’ve learned to appreciate is that it’s difficult to understand the special education community when you’re not a member of it. As a parent of two children with disabilities myself, one who is in a wheelchair, I’d like you to appreciate that the tone and language used throughout this case has been troubling.
“I suggest the next time you’re adding to conversation about the disabled, you give yourself an exercise and substitute ‘disabled’ with any other minority group and see how it feels to you,” she continued. “Because if you stood here and told a child who happened to be Hispanic or African-American or Asian that they should look for another home or should, in the case of a fire, wait on a concrete pad in the backyard for first responders, your intentions would be equally scrutinized.
“When a professional testifies to the fact that his design is the simplest and the least obstructive for this property, and you ask him if he can design an unobtrusive ramp and question the amount of buffer toward the neighbor and the street visibility, or put some kind of landscaping in front of the ramp, you maybe don’t realize that you’re implying the person who needs it is not welcome to be seen,” she concluded. “There are real physical barriers that the disabled face every day, despite the ADA, fair housing laws and common sense and courtesy. Denying Ethan access to his home needs to just end today.”
Councilman Joe Krakoviak thanked the Zoning Board for its work on the application, but asked that they learn from the experience.
“I appreciate your diligence, and you trying to exercise your statutory obligations in the interest of the applicant, our laws and our community,” Krakoviak said. “But I hope that there are things that happened during these hearings that you decide that you will not repeat.”
Krakoviak said that the board should have discussed hiring Ricci in a meeting before asking the Township Council to approve him.
“Mr. Ricci is an outstanding architect, he is a former member here who has served honorably, but I don’t think he should have been here tonight and I hesitate to think about how much money has been spent on Mr. Ricci,” he said. “I do appreciate the board agreeing to not have him continue in this manner.”
Ross Clark is no longer a West Orange resident, but grew up in the town and was at the meeting to support the Roman family. Clark, who uses a wheelchair, now lives in Lebanon.
“I love West Orange,” Clark said. “They are a passionate town, they always have been a passionate town. So do the right thing here — this is a civil right. Ethan has the same entitlement as everyone else in this room. Whether you stand, don’t stand, you’re all mobile. We all have equal access.”
After the board passed the variance, Ethan Roman’s father said that many people don’t realize the obstacles his family faces when looking for a place Ethan can easily live.
“People tend to not understand what Ethan has to go through,” Laniyan told the West Orange Chronicle in an interview at the meeting. “We work so hard to go with the flow and try to find a place where Ethan can live, and these are common things that handicapped people have to go through.”
Laniyan also said that the process of having ramps approved was difficult for his family, though he was touched by the residents and friends who attended the meeting to support his son.
“Having to go to meeting after meeting is beyond me, it’s an eye-opener,” Laniyan said. “We need to think about that, and about what something like that does. But it’s amazing, we never expected it to matter this much. I hope some changes are made; things are going in the right direction and moving forward. I’m glad that people came out and showed that this actually is the right place for us.”
Photo by Amanda Valentovic and Photos Courtesy of Stephanie Roman