Burt Wallrich has spent four years searching for a spot in the Santa Monica Mountains for a public overnight camp that would accommodate the disabled and their families.
His quest has taken him to three properties in the hills and on a tour of the state bureaucracy: the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the state Department of Parks and Recreation and the Legislature.
Those efforts ended in failure. Now though, the National Park Service appears willing to provide 151 acres in Decker Canyon, in western Malibu, where a private developer could build the camp that Wallrich has dreamed about.
The $3.5-million project, called Flora Hill, would be one of the first in the United States to allow people with physical handicaps to share the activities of the able-bodied in a natural setting.
Park Service Recommendation
The Park Service staff has endorsed a proposal for three overnight lodges to house about 75 people, two miles of trails accessible to wheelchairs, a therapeutic pool and an equestrian center that would include a special ramp for mounting horses. The camp would be located at the intersection of Decker Road and Mulholland Highway.
The advisory committee for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area also has granted approval.
The Park Service will hold a public hearing on Wednesday at Joaquin Miller Special Education School in Reseda and will take written comments on the proposal until June 8. A decision is expected by the end of the summer, said Nancy Ehorn, an assistant superintendent of the recreation area.
For Wallrich, a Santa Fe Springs resume-writer, Flora Hill would be a place where he would not have to repeat the difficulties and indignities of a 1982 vacation in Arizona. His wife, Nancy, who has arthritis, was uncomfortable sleeping in their van; a tent was out of the question. And she could not use her wheelchair to get to the fields of wildflowers she wanted to see.
"I would have to go and come back and describe it to her," said Wallrich, 50. "Or I could stay with her and neither of us would see anything. We came back fairly steamed."
When they returned, they formed a group called Total Access Camping to lobby for a barrier-free facility.
A Place for Everyone
"We don't want it to be a place strictly for people with disabilities. We don't want it to be used only by people who don't need special facilities," Wallrich said. "It's being set aside for everyone. It's simply that a special group that is usually excluded is being included."
With an estimated 1.1 million people in Southern California with physical, sensory or mental disabilities, along with 1.4 million independent elderly people, Wallrich reasoned that there are plenty of others who would like to go camping but cannot.
Others agree. "There's definitely a need for a place like that," said Joe Zenzola, president of the California Assn. of the Physically Handicapped.
Stuart Mace, deputy director of programs for the National Easter Seal Society, said there are about 250 camping programs across the country for people with disabilities. But most of those last only for a week or two, he said, and few allow families to join the campers.
"That's what makes this case unique," Mace said. "And that's important because we're trying to emphasize that people with disabilities can really function in all activities of the general population. To segregate them and put them aside just isn't fair. And the general population also needs to become more familiar with them as part of the culture."
However, the Flora Hill proposal also has its critics, who question whether the demand for a barrier-free camp is great enough to justify turning over a large chunk of public property.
Wallrich and environmental activist Lou Levy both have conducted surveys through cooperating organizations that serve the handicapped. They got similar results: About 4% of those contacted responded that they would go camping if they could.
But "neither of us could be considered high professionals in this category," said Levy, a professor of medicine. "I think that there are many interpretations of this data and I think that a third party should do a definitive study."
State parks officials also pointed out that they were already making general trails accessible to the blind and to people using wheelchairs.
So is the Park Service, Ehorn said.
But "the problem is it takes a long time to retrofit existing facilities," she said. "Over time and as we have money to do that, we'll make them more accessible. But unless you're starting from ground zero, it's difficult to come in and turn things around."
Some environmentalists opposed earlier proposals for the camp because they feared that developing public land that bought to be preserved would set a bad precedent.
They urged Wallrich to buy his own land for the camp, but he said that would be too expensive. "Raising the money for development alone will not be easy, " he said.