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Keep Columbia historic, but ADA accessible

Once a decaying ghost town, Columbia is now a meticulously restored state historic park whose mission is to duplicate what the old gold camp looked like in the 1870s as faithfully as possible.

Among key beneficiaries are Columbia's concessionaires, who operate the park's businesses under agreements with the state and cater to the half million or so tourists who explore and shop there each year. So it's understandable that those concessionaires are particularly sensitive to any changes proposed in the town's appearance or atmosphere.

Their most recent concerns are the up to $1 million in street, sidewalk and store-entrance work aimed at bringing the park up to standards set out in the Americans With Disabilities Act. The changes were ordered in a 1997 class action suit brought against the California Department of Parks and Recreation and are part of a 14-year, $110 million effort bring all the state's 278 parks into compliance.

It wasn't the state's idea: "We don't have any choice about this," confirmed Jim Trapani, a Sacramento-based Parks Department landscape architect in charge of the project.

So now Columbia has two potentially conflicting goals: remaining faithful to the historical mission set out when the park was established in 1945 and complying with the federal ADA so all visitors — including those who are handicapped — can enjoy the park's businesses and attractions.

More than 60 concessionaires and area residents attended a February meeting on the project and learned of state plans to raise sidewalks so they are flush with business doors, some of which may be widened to accommodate wheelchairs. Sacrificed in the process would be stoops — some made of marble and dating back more than a century — now leading from the sidewalks into the buildings.

Also planned are ramps from streets to the new raised sidewalks. Once the work is done, said Trapani, a disabled visitor could make it from the parking lots to the streets to the sidewalks to the businesses without difficulty.

No one questions that goal, but several have questioned the cost — not only in dollars, but in the park's integrity and authenticity.

Many insist that Columbia over many years has received no complaints over handicapped access and that portable ramps at businesses that have met the needs of disabled visitors.

Others argue that the ADA includes exemptions for historic properties and that the state is spending too much too fast — work could start as early as September — to comply with the court ruling. Some add that Tuolumne County, which actually owns the streets and sidewalks running through the park — has been out of the loop.

On more basic level, there are concerns that the board and brick sidewalks, a Columbia trademark, could be casualties of the ADA project. Questions asked at the meeting made it clear that concessionaires don't take the changes lightly and fear what Candy Kitchen concessionaire Janice Nelson called "the Disneylanding of Columbia."

On the plus side, Calaveras Sector Superintendent Vince Sereno said the project is still in its "design phase," that local input is given a high priority and that historians have a key role in crafting the final product.

He also said that construction would be timed to have minimal impact on tourists and businesses.

These are encouraging signs and we agree that the state should proceed with caution, deliberation, an open ear toward suggestions and an eye toward meeting the ADA mandates without compromising what makes Columbia unique — its character and authenticity.

Most of all, the Department of Parks and Recreation must avoid what its most strident local critics fear it might do: spending the budgeted cash for ADA compliance simply because it's there.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Ron Horton; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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