Dispute over wheelchair lift coops condo owner in home

Article Courtesy of the Palm Beach Post

Published November 21, 2005


LAKE PARK Lynda Steltz hasn't left her home since July.


Steltz, who uses a wheelchair, can't use a freedom-giving lift that would carry her effortlessly from the ground to her second-floor condominium.

Not until a squabble pitting her 14-year partner, the father of her two young children, against the Harbor View Condominium Association is resolved.

In what local civil rights activists are calling one of the most egregious cases of housing discrimination they've encountered in years, the association is blocking Steltz's partner, Rocco Pellegrino, from installing the $10,000 lift he bought in July when he realized he no longer could carry Steltz up and down the stairs.

"It's despicable. It's despicable," said Vince Larkins, president of the Fair Housing Center of the Greater Palm Beaches. "This woman is trapped in her home."

If the board of the 10-unit condominium along the Intracoastal Waterway just north of Silver Beach Road does not move quickly to let Pellegrino install the wheelchair lift, Larkins promised that a lawsuit will be filed in federal court.

"We are not going to sit back and let this young person be imprisoned by people who don't have sensitivity toward people with disabilities," he said.

Brent Headberg, president of the association, said he and Steltz's neighbors want to help the 46-year-old mother, who has multiple sclerosis. Some residents have even offered to swap their ground-floor units so Steltz would not have to navigate stairs.

"We want to make accommodations to make her comfortable," Headberg said.

But, he said, the association has an obligation to make sure the lift is installed safely. Although the Lake Park building department wrote Pellegrino a letter Nov. 14 saying his permit had been approved, Headberg said he hasn't seen drawings to show how the lift will be installed.

Without the condominium association's approval, the town cannot issue the permit.

Pellegrino, a chiropractor, contends that the association has erected numerous obstacles, such as making him pay outstanding dues and fix windows that were damaged in last year's hurricanes before they would bless his request for a permit.

Headberg readily admits the association made such demands.

"How can you come to us and ask for approval when you're not even in good standing?" he said.

However, civil rights advocates said the issues are unrelated. Associations cannot demand fees from members in exchange for favors. According to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the association must accommodate the disabled, Larkins said.

Headberg insists the problem could have been avoided if Pellegrino had gotten a permit before the lift was delivered. Instead, it arrived one Saturday morning and it looked as though Pellegrino was going to install it himself, he said.

Pellegrino insisted he always planned to get a building permit.

As the two sides bicker, Steltz sits and waits.

"I used to drive him nuts to go places all the time," she said.