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Nation's first "visitability" law withstands court challenge

Dec. 23, 2003 -- In a unanimous decision, the Arizona Court of Appeals Friday put to rest efforts by Tucson builders to void Pima County's nearly 2-year-old law requiring minimal access in new homes, the Inclusive Home Design Ordinance. The ordinance was one of the first in the nation to require "visitability" for new single-family homes.

The Southern Arizona Home Builders Association had sued over the law, saying county officials had no right to pass such a law; that it was "unconstitutional." The state appeals court, however, ruled that county does have the authority to adopt wheelchair access requirements for buildings.

The ordinance requires all new houses in the unincorporated areas of the county around Tucson be built with at least one entrance with no step, and doors at least 32 inches wide. It also requires

  • lever door handles
  • reinforced walls in ground-floor bathrooms so it's easy for an occupant to install grab bars
  • switches no higher than 48 inches
  • hallways 36 inches wide throughout the main floor.

The Pima County ordinance, the first in the nation to require a zero-step entry in a single-family home, passed in February 2002. When a local building firm, applied for a permit to build a single-family home, and their proposed design failed to comply with the ordinance and the county denied the application, the company sued the county, saying it "lacked statutory authority to adopt the ordinance and that it violated both the Equal Protection and Privacy Clauses of the Arizona Constitution."

Writing the opinion for the Arizona Supreme Court, Judge Eckerstrom wrote that "the uncontested evidence established that approximately one percent of the population is confined [sic] to wheelchairs, but the county points out that a much larger percentage will suffer [sic] a disability at some point in their lives. Although all age groups are affected by disability, the county introduced evidence that approximately forty-one percent of people over the age of sixty-five have some form of disability. Disability is a growing problem both nationally and locally, and the county also introduced evidence that Arizona's population of people over the age of sixty is expected to triple by 2025. Although many of these disabled people will not be confined [sic] to wheelchairs, the county concluded from these figures that the number of people confined [sic] to wheelchairs is rising. For these reasons, the county addressed a legitimate governmental interest when it adopted a building code designed to increase the number of homes accessible to those in wheelchairs."

The builders also complained to the court that the ordinance "places the financial design burdens on homeowners who will probably never be confined [sic] to wheelchairs." Dismissing this argument, the court noted that the county had "submitted to the trial court the results of a study suggesting that complying with the ordinance would cost only about $100....Indeed, the Board of Supervisors found that the cost of including the ordinance's designs into a new home was substantially less than the cost of renovating a home to accommodate a person confined [sic] to a wheelchair. On this record, the Board of Supervisors could have rationally concluded that the benefit to the community in providing for the disabled justified the comparatively minimal cost of implementing the required design features."

The case is Washburn v. Pima County, #2 CA-CV 2003-0107. To download a copy of the Court's opinion in WordPerfect, go to, click on "civil" and Submit.

Read more about the ordinance at the Solar Institute website.

Read article from the Dec. 20 Arizona Daily Star



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