Lakewood Ranch HOA cracks down on path for disabled child

srocco@bradenton.comApril 30, 2014 

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Three years ago, Michael Groves replaced a sliver of grass in his front yard with a gravel path so his teenage stepson could safely make it up and down the driveway.

Ben, 15, isn't your average high-schooler.

Ben was diagnosed with autism at age 5 and developed epilepsy in his preteen years. He can have multiple seizures per month, requiring him to wear a $250 helmet at almost all times in case he collapses.

Ben plays with remote control cars in the front lawn of his Summerfield home. If he walks down to the sidewalk, he uses a path made of pea gravel and sand, according to his father, who said his son knows never to step foot on the concrete driveway. If Ben collapsed there, he could crack his head open or even die.

Now the Summerfield/Riverwalk Village Association has decided to oppose the 3-year-old path, stating it violates association rules and design standards set forth in a declaration of covenants.

Groves, who has lived in Summerfield since 2001, attended a board meeting April 16 after he was told to replace the path with concrete material such as pavers. The next day he received a letter: "The SRVA board of directors met and denied your request to be granted a variance to keep the rock driveway extension to the left of the driveway."

Groves said he is upset the board would not accommodate a child with disabilities.

"If Ben has a seizure, if I had concrete here now, the ability for him to have a more substantial head injury is actually a lot greater," said Groves, a spinal and cranium specialist for a medical device company. "Because he has so many seizures, we have to do everything we can to protect his

head. He goes straight down."

The pea gravel, Groves says, will disperse the energy of a fall better than concrete.

He demonstrated by dropping a pebble into the gravel, which spread out upon impact, cushioning the pebble's fall.

Groves, 40, claims the association is violating the federal Fair Housing Act, which states a person with a disability can make "reasonable modifications" to a property in order to "fully enjoy" the premises.

The gravel path, Groves says, is a reasonable modification. He wrote to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and received a response April 18 stating the agency would consider an investigation.

Spokeswoman Elena Gaona said HUD could not determine whether the association is violating the act prior to an investigation.

HUD's office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity will conduct the investigation "using interviews of the parties and potential witnesses and review of the relevant documents," Gaona wrote in an email to the Herald.

If the investigation proves the association wrong, SRVA could face a charge in federal court, she added.

Robert Swiatek, association president, would not comment on the case Tuesday.

Stephen Thompson, an attorney hired by the association, said the board will meet soon to discuss the decision.

Thompson contends Groves did not mention his son's disability in his initial request.

"We have contacted Mr. Groves and informed him that the association is not currently taking any enforcement action requiring him to remove the gravel pathway that he has constructed on his property," Thompson said in an email to the Herald on Tuesday. "We are in the process of reviewing the facts and additional information that has recently been provided by Mr. Groves."

Groves said he provided a copy of his son's medical records to the association Monday.

Dr. Selim Benbadis, professor and director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Program at the University of South Florida, said it is not uncommon for parents to take all precautions possible to protect an epileptic child.

"Usually in severe types of seizures, the child will fall and sustain injury. They can hit their face, they can hit their head, their nose and suffer severe injuries," he said. "It is entirely reasonable to try to accommodate the house inside and outside to avoid potential injury."

Groves and his wife, Laura, Ben's mother, padded the inside of their home in dangerous areas. Ben's room has cushioned carpeting.

"I did this in good taste, and I did it to match the color of my house," Groves said, pointing to the gravel path. "I've had it for three years. This is what Ben knows."

Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.

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