Ensuring Beach Access for All

Posted in Nature, Spotlight

Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
August 23, 2017

What does a trip to a Whidbey Island beach mean to you? Do you think of wriggling your toes in the sand, of poking through driftwood looking for treasures, or wading into the chilly water? Do you enjoy walking along the shore or throwing sticks out into the waves for your dog to retrieve? Or perhaps your joy comes from a sitting on a log sketching the scene around you, reading, or simply contemplating life where the land and the water meet.

Most people can take advantage of the many points of beach access available to the public on Whidbey Island (Public Beach Access Map). But if you’re mobility challenged, what’s labeled “public beach access” doesn’t mean access for you.

Those who can maneuver over uneven terrain, climb over driftwood, and maintain their balance in soft sand may never think about what it’s like to be confined to the parking lot because a wheelchair or crutches can’t go any farther.

The early stages of creating a pathway through the driftwood (Photo by Kyle Richardson)

Mel Trenor was motivated to find a solution to that problem. He’s a member of Island Beach Access (IBA), a nonprofit group dedicated to “identifying, mapping, signing, and preserving access to the public shorelines of Island County for the legal and rightful use of its citizens, for future generations.”

In 2015, Greg Richardson, whose adult son Kyle relies on a wheelchair, approached IBA to express his frustration over the fact that people who are mobility challenged cannot take advantage of public access to the beach. Members of IBA recognized the need for expanding their mission: “Our community prides itself on being welcoming and inclusive,” says Trenor. “The mobility-challenged have not benefited from that.”

Mel Trenor at work (Photo by Kyle Richardson)

Trenor’s gym buddy, Frank Ruggiero, is an experienced fisherman, and when he offered to share his knowledge, Trenor took him up on it. The two men met at a beach near Keystone. Ruggiero, who was rehabbing from a spinal injury that left him relying on crutches, got his fishing pole out, leaned his crutches against the side of his pickup, lowered himself to the ground, and crawled to the water’s edge. With Ruggiero sitting on the sand instructing him, Trenor got a lesson in fishing and in what life is like when you can’t walk where you want to go.

Research into how other beach communities have handled this issue led Trenor to make a trip to Boundary Bay Provincial Park in British Columbia. There, the wide sandy beach beckons people out to the water, but the majority of them, able-bodied or not, choose to get from the parking lot to the beach by walking or rolling on a thick blue mat that stretches across the sand. It is like a plastic boardwalk—firm and solid. Folks in wheelchairs, parents pushing strollers, kids pulling wagons, seniors with canes, and young, agile teenagers all make their way down to the shore on it. AccessMat® accessibility mats have changed the way most park visitors enjoy the beach. And, in fact, mats like them are used up and down the East Coast, in Europe, and in South America to provide a path for everyone to cross the sand.

Greg Richardson volunteered countless hours and wore out several pairs of gloves in the process. (Photo by Kyle Richardson)

Once Trenor and IBA learned that there was a solution, they looked for a beach where other obstacles—like too steep a slope, too narrow or long a trail from the parking area to the sand, or lack of space for disabled parking—wouldn’t complicate accessibility. There were a few candidates, but Clinton Beach Park had the added advantage of being easy to get to for both islanders and visitors who may not know about many of the other public beaches. A beach popular with summer crabbers and many who walk their dogs and bring their kids to play, Clinton Beach Park is at the northwest corner of the ferry landing. The park draws locals and visitors with its picnic tables under a “living roof,” a gazebo with bathrooms, and art by local artists. It offered a good location, a manageable size, and a relatively flat shoreline.

But it quickly became clear that, if disabled people were going to come to this beach, they would need a better parking situation. That would mean expanding the small parking lot to make room for more disabled parking spots. Another issue was the driftwood that created a barrier between the concrete and the sand. The environmental impact of altering the parking lot and of moving the logs that had piled up over the years needed to be considered. Permits were required for all of this work and, of course, money was needed.

Jeanie McElwain, Greg Richardson, Mel Trenor, and Paul McElwain lay out the access mats. (Photo by Kyle Richardson)

Clinton Beach Park is the property of the Port of South Whidbey, whose mission is “to enhance the economic well-being of the community and improve public access to marine areas while respecting the unique rural character and environment of South Whidbey Island.” Trenor’s first step was to ask the port for its cooperation and for financial help to make the project a reality.

The port supported the project enthusiastically. As Curt Gordon, commissioner for District 3 said, “Probably the most important aspect of the universal access project at Clinton beach is that it shows that the port and the people of Clinton and South Whidbey intend our facilities to be all-inclusive.”

Luke Shantz, ready to roll (Photo by Kyle Richardson)

Once the Port was on board, additional money and assistance were needed to make the plan a reality. At the port commissioner’s meeting, where Trenor made his first pitch for money, a woman in the audience handed him a check. Dawn Pucci, of Island County Department of Natural Resources, volunteered her time to complete the environmental impact statement so a permit could be secured. The Rotary Club of South Whidbey and faith-based groups such as St. Augustine’s in the Woods brought Trenor to speak to them and added their donations to the pot. South Whidbey firefighters and the Navy both offered their help. “It took Mel and IBA to remind us of the need, but all players stepped up to the table,” says Gordon. “Volunteers and monetary contributors made this possible, allowing the port to leverage modest public funds to create a truly unique accessible facility.”

The project is not yet complete, but thanks to many hands and strong backs, the parking lot has been repaved to create two ADA-compliant parking spots, driftwood has been moved, and plants have been relocated. The trail to the sand has been delineated and the first section of access matting has been laid. Last week, Ryan Murphy, an adult confined to a wheelchair, was able to go to the beach for the first time since he was 6 years old. Murphy lives across the water and visits his parents on the island every weekend. The family has a home with beach access, but not the kind of access that Ryan can take advantage of. Now, there’s a beach on Whidbey where Murphy feels welcome.

Volunteers Greg and Kyle Richardson, Jeanie and Paul McElwain, and Mel Trenor (Photo by Kyle Richardson)

Kyle Richardson, who took the photos for this article says, “When this project is complete, and folks in chairs or who are mobility-challenged in one way or another can get down into the sand or in a beach chair, it will change their lives. I know each time I’m able to do the things that I used to love, and were my passions, a piece of me is put back into place. This project and other mobility challenges I’ve overcome get me back into the state of mind that ‘I can.’”

IBA needs funds to extend the access mats all the way to the sand. They’ve created a Go Fund Me campaign, to which you can contribute by clicking here.

The blue mats make the path visible to visually impaired, but funding is needed to bring them the rest of the way to the water. (Photo by Kyle Richardson)

Deborah Nedelman, Ph.D., M.F.A., has been married to Mel Trenor for 43 years. After retiring from her first career as a clinical psychologist and raising two children, she moved to the island where she devotes herself to working with words. A published author, she writes, edits, runs writing groups, coaches writers, and is a member of the WLM team.

Kyle Richardson is a commercial photographer who specialized in photographing automobiles, still-lifes, and individuals north of Los Angeles. He built and managed a 6,000 square-foot studio there that supported a wide variety of still imaging, video production, and interactive and print design. He relocated to Whidbey Island for health reasons and is starting to take on small creative projects that he can do from the wheelchair here in the Pacific Northwest. 

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  1. Our family has benefitted from your dedication to make this project happen. Our son Ryan now has unprecedented access. He was thrilled to try it out the other day when he came off the ferry. We look forward to using it often. Thanks so much for your attention to the needs of this population.

  2. Wonderful article. Congratulations to Mel Trenor and his team from I.B.A. And the south Whidbey port district for making this happen. We can expand this to other beaches in Island County and we should.

    What the article doesn’t mention is that this is the first use of these mats in Washington. I think that will soon change as other locations are developed. It’s a great solution.

    Thanks again, Mike McVay

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