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Hilton Head Island's beach matting has been such a success that several more beaches soon could have matting on them as well, town officials said last week.'
But one local advocate for the disabled says the town could -- and should -- be doing more to give wheelchair-bound individuals better access to the island's beaches.'
Possibly as early as April, a mat will be added to Folly Field, said town facilities manager Tripp Ritchie, and Sea Pines is making inquiries about equipping beaches adjoining its property with the matting as well.'
The mats -- which are like heavy plastic carpeting between boardwalks and hard-packed sand near the surf -- are now at Coligny and Driessen beach parks. Last March, the Town Council approved the mats for a six-month trial run.'
The town has received positive community feedback from parents pushing strollers as well as people using wheelchairs, Ritchie said.'
The mats also have attracted the attention of the state Department of Disabilities, which recently gave the town its annual Silver Palmetto Award for outstanding service to residents with disabilities.'
But Bart Brophy, president of the island's Access Disability Action Center, said last week that the town could be doing more. Specifically, the town also should provide specialized wheelchairs for beach use, he said.'
Brophy was the one who originally suggested the beach matting in 2001. He also initially asked that his organization be paid to maintain the matting, which must be rolled up at night during the summer to avoid interfering with sea turtle nesting.'
"The town has contracted with Shore Beach Services only to provide access to able-bodied persons," Brophy said.'
What Brophy wants is universal access, which he believes can be achieved only by the town's adding the specialized wheelchairs.'
But the wheelchairs present several problems for the town, said Chuck Hoelle, deputy town manager:'
<li> Town Council created a policy in 1989 that prohibits the town from competing with local vendors. Burke's Main Street Pharmacy has one beach wheelchair available for $65 a week, and Hilton Head Pharmacy until recently provided them.'
<li> The wheelchair models suggested by Brophy carry a price tag ranging from $1,000 to nearly $10,000. Many warranties also are invalidated by salt and water damage, and the warranties state that only the company that sold the chair can repair it. That means the town would need spare chairs on hand while damaged ones are shipped back to the factory.'
<li> The town opens itself to possible lawsuits if something goes wrong with the wheelchairs.'
"You just don't know everything you're getting into by providing these chairs," Hoelle said.'
But Brophy said the reasons are "silly excuses" and are "not valid reasons to deny an entire group of people, protected by law, from accessing what everyone else can access."'
The town's Public Facilities Committee will meet April 1 to hear from Brophy.'
The town has about $25,000 in this year's budget for beach access improvements, which include boardwalk and handicapped parking repairs in addition to the beach mats.'
The 82-by-7-foot mats cost about $3,800 each.'
Sea Pines has made recent inquiries to Town Hall about installing the matting on adjacent beaches to facilitate resident and tourist access to the beaches.'
Rob Bender, recreation and fitness director for Sea Pines, said the resort was beginning to research the possibilities, but said it was too early to determine a timetable or places for the mats.'
"Obviously, there are handicapped people who visit and live here, and we want to be able to provide all the services we can," Bender said.