More MS news articles for September 2002

Judge OKs motorized vehicle for disabled Mackinac Island man

September 6, 2002, Friday, BC cycle
MIKE TYREE, Associated Press Writer
The Associated Press State & Local Wire

Is Mackinac Island, the quaint bastion of horse-drawn carriages and peddle-powered transportation, finally going motorized?

The answer is yes - at least in one case.

A judge ruled Wednesday that disabled island resident Donald Bertrand may use a motorized three-wheeled bicycle to navigate the city's streets. Bertrand is one of three men who this year filed lawsuits against the city alleging violations of state and federal laws that protect the disabled. Hearings have yet to be scheduled in the remaining suits.

"I'm not looking to change anything," said Bertrand, who has Multiple Sclerosis. "I just want to ride my bicycle."

Mackinac Island officials argued that Bertrand's use of an electric-assisted bicycle could open the floodgates to motorized vehicles and destroy the island's renowned 19th-century charm.

Judge Martin B. Breighner disagreed in an opinion filed in Mackinac County Circuit Court.

"It is not unusual for people to resist change, particularly when so much is at stake," Breighner wrote. "However, the court and the defendant must accept the law as directed by the federal and state statutes. People with disabilities must be given the same opportunity to enjoy Mackinac Island as is available to non-disabled persons."

Attorneys for the city plan to appeal. They dispute the judge's finding that biking is a city service and fear the decision puts Mackinac Island on a "slippery slope" to widespread motor vehicle use.

Potential backlash from tourists who expect a serene, non-motorized setting could have dire economic consequences, city attorney Tom Evashevski said.

"Are we going to have 20 (motorized bikes), or 200, or 2,000?" he said. "The average tourist is not going to understand when they see or hear a motorized bicycle go whizzing by them."

"If this is not a fundamental alteration to the nature and character of the island, then what is?" added Dave Wadell, a Lansing attorney and city co-counsel.

Mackinac Island has permitted the use of electric wheelchairs and three-wheeled scooters since 1995, when the city altered its vehicle ordinance. City officials contended that Bertrand and other disabled people are welcome to use those forms of transportation.

But Bertrand, who's owned a home on the island for three years, didn't want to be confined to a wheelchair or scooter. He peddles his bike when possible and uses the electric motor - which tops out at 10 miles per hour - when he's fatigued. The exercise helps in his battle against MS, he said.

Biking is a way of life on the island and thousands do so each year, whether they're dodging horses and tourists on crowded streets or cruising alone near the rugged shoreline. The 52-year-old Bertrand didn't want to be left out, said his attorney, Michael J. Steinberg, of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"He loves bicycling. It's a major part of the culture of the island," Steinberg said.

The ruling doesn't mean Mackinac Island is about to become a sport utility vehicle haven, Steinberg said.

"We hope it will lead to a process whereby other individuals with disabilities will be able to apply for a permit for electric assist bikes," he said.

Evashevski said that's easier said than done. He said the city likely would have to add another department to review motorized vehicle requests, including someone with a medical background. And the process may be too time-consuming for a disabled person who wants to spend a day on the island.

Bertrand said the lawsuit has taken its toll. He said he's met many "wonderful" people on the island, but has heard plenty of critical comments about his desire to bike.

"It really has taken away a lot of the enjoyment of living in this atmosphere," he said. "There's not a lot of compassion on the island."

© Copyright 2002 Associated Press