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‘Delta King’ Not Historic Enough to Avoid ADA

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - For 85 years, the riverboat Delta King has carried passengers between Sacramento and San Francisco, served as a wartime vessel of the government and - in later years after being restored to its former glory - entertained people as a hotel, bar and grill and live music venue.

But the Delta King is not, as an 85-year-old riverboat, particularly accessible to people with disabilities. Its gangways are sloped. The decks are slanted. Entrances have raised thresholds that kept water out of staterooms in the riverboat's seafaring days.

So it's no surprise that Hollynn D'Lil, a paraplegic, sued the riverboat's owners and its champions - the City of Sacramento and Old Sacramento Business Association - in August 2011 after she tried to reserve an accessible hotel room and found that the land-tethered boat completely failed to meet its obligations under California's Disabled Rights Act and the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

It isn't that the Delta King's owners or the city haven't tried to make the riverboat ADA-compliant. Solon Wisham Jr., the assistant city manager for Sacramento from 1981 to 1991, said in a declaration answering D'Lil's lawsuit that "the goal was to find a way to preserve as much of the original appearance and design of the vessel as possible in a way consistent with then-existing standards as a hotel and public accommodation."

Wisham continued: "Numerous ideas were discussed to determine what aspects of the California Building Code, inclusive of the Historic Building Code, would be applied to the vessel. The decision to retain inherent maritime features such as coamings [the raised portion of a deck that prevents water from coming inside the boat], door thresholds, and cambered docks all were compromises made by the city while balancing the objective of preserving the existing historical fabric, maintaining the character and silhouette of the vessel, with the intended operation of the vessel as a functioning hotel largely accessible to disabled persons."

Despite these efforts, D'Lil's original complaint contained 35 pages of ADA noncompliance, like not being able to access the fourth-deck cocktail lounge where live music was featured several times a week.

Disabled patrons can be seated on the more accessible third deck and order food and drinks there, but "it does not provide the equivalent ambience, experience and scenic view as seating on the fourth floor of the Delta Bar and Grill," according to U.S. District Judge William Shubb in denying a dismissal request by the riverboat's owners.

In his 36-page ruling, Shubb acknowledged the boat's historic status but said he could not see what had been done to win an accessibility exemption under the historic building code.

"None of the evidence before the court suggests that the Sacramento Building Department worked with or solicited input from a representative local group of disabled people," Shubb wrote. "The lack of evidence showing compliance with the historic building code's handicap hardship exceptions raises a genuine dispute as to whether those sections were in fact utilized to grant any exceptions."

The judge also denied the Delta King's request to stay D'Lil's case so it can reapply for the exceptions, with harsh words for the foot-dragging by the riverboat's owners.

"Despite Delta King's request for a stay so that it can apply for retroactive exemptions, it fails to explain why it has not already initiated such proceedings with the Sacramento Building Department," Shubb wrote. "Plaintiff filed this lawsuit over three years ago and the trial is set for Dec. 9, 2014. Now, less than three months before trial, Delta King requests a stay to accomplish what it could have pursued over the past three years. Furthermore, any exemptions Delta King may receive from the Sacramento Building Department will not affect plaintiff's ADA claims. Congress and the state of California have unequivocally expressed their desire to eliminate discrimination against disabled individuals, and this court will not delay plaintiff's attempt to bring that goal to fruition."

The Delta King and its twin Delta Queen were built in Glasgow, Scotland and Stockton, Calif. and were christened in 1927, according to the Delta King website. The 285-foot paddlewheel boats took over 10 hours to reach San Francisco from Sacramento while guests enjoyed Prohibition-era drinking, gambling, jazz bands and fine dining - until the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 and the Bay Bridge in 1938 ended the riverboats' run.

The Delta Queen also operates as an entertainment facility, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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