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For nearly 20 years, Gordon Palmer has parked just outside the stadium gates for Florida State University football games. Which has been very handy for a quadriplegic who uses a motorized wheelchair.

The location made it easy for his friends to find him to tailgate. It allowed Palmer to roll into and out of the stadium with relative ease.

But this fall, all disabled parking permits issued by Florida State for football games will be in a parking garage about 300 yards from the stadium. Shuttles will be available to carry the disabled to the stadium.

The change upsets Palmer and others who use disabled parking permits.

"I'm just really disappointed, really disgusted," said Palmer, an FSU ticket holder since 1996, who has parked in recent years just outside the south entrances to Doak Campbell Stadium. "I can't believe they did this."

FSU announced the change in a letter sent May 19 to disabled parking permit applicants. Though the Seminole Boosters control most of the parking around the stadium, the university's Office of Equal Opportunity and Compliance issues disabled parking permits.

Traditionally, 200 disabled parking spaces were in close proximity to Doak Campbell Stadium. They were issued on a first-come, first-serve basis after application letters went out in the spring. Applicants had to have a Department of Motor Vehicles-issued disabled parking permit to qualify.

There were 50 "premium," assigned spaces in lots immediately adjacent to the stadium. Those spaces were about 50 yards from the entry gates. Most other disabled permit spaces were on Stadium Drive, which runs on the west side of the stadium. Those were about 100 yards from the west side entry gates.

Two years ago, some disabled parking permits were moved to a recently completed parking garage about 300 yards east of the stadium on St. Augustine Street. This year, that garage will house all university-issued disabled parking permits, whose number will expand to 300 spaces.

The parking garage has seven floors and 1,150 spaces. The 300 disabled parking spaces will not be assigned and will be located throughout the garage (which is also used during games by Seminole Boosters). Shuttles and Dial-A-Ride vehicles, equipped to lift and transport wheelchairs, will run continuously before, during and after the game. Pickup/drop-off points will be covered from rain.

Amber Wagner, FSU's coordinator for Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), said the switch was made for two reasons.

One was annual dismay by those who didn't land one of the premium spots, and complained about the mail and computer procedures used for the first-come, first serve assignments. The other was the parking on Stadium Drive, which is closed to regular traffic before the game but remains open for buses and official vehicles.

Wagner said there were "maneuverability" issues for parking on Stadium Drive, as the street is not marked for parking spaces. She said those who parked on Stadium Drive often tailgated in the landscaped median, even as buses and official vehicles whizzed by. In addition, those parked on Stadium Drive had to be out of their spaces by an hour after the end of the game, when the road is re-opened to traffic.

Wagner said putting all disabled parking permits in the same place provides equal service to all applicants. She said the garage eliminates safety concerns on Stadium Drive.

"We felt a lot of pressure about the first-come, first serve system; we wanted to make sure we were doing our best for everyone in the program," Wagner said. "A bigger reason for moving forward with this change was (Stadium Drive parking); we had compliance and safety concerns using that road as an ADA parking lot."

Palmer say the parking garage presents problems for the disabled.

Chief among them is the distance from the stadium. Occasionally, Palmer's battery powered wheelchair has lost power, forcing friends to push the 400-pound chair to the parking lot. Occasionally, he has left the stadium in a rainstorm.

"Thank goodness I was parked close (each time)," said Palmer, 55, an attorney with the state Reemployment Assistance Appeals Commission.

Palmer said the parking garage also hampers tailgating, because it's an unappealing venue (where grilling is not allowed except on the open top floor). And without assigned spaces, if will be difficult for friends to find those parked there.

"I could be on the first floor, I could be on the third floor," Palmer said. "It's aggravating."

Leslie Kitterman, 58, has been a season ticket holder since 1977; she is now a Silver Chief booster who buys eight season tickets a year. She has a bone condition that requires her to use a manual wheelchair. For years, she has had a disabled parking permit that allowed here to park just outside an eastside gate.

She shares Palmer's concerns that moving to the parking garage will affect tailgating and access to the stadium, noting that "getting on and off a bus is difficult" for the disabled.

But her biggest dismay is the way the change was announced. The May 19 letter came out of the blue and doesn't give a reason for the change, save a desire to "streamline the Disabled Parking Program."

"(Disabled parking users) should have been contacted and let's have a conversation," said Kitterman, an analyst with the Florida Department of Financial Services. "Many times people who make the decisions on these kinds of things are not disabled and haven't thought about this stuff. They didn't contact the people involved who need to be heard."

Wagner said the 50 disabled parking spots closest to the stadium will now be assigned to the Seminole Boosters, who will issue them to Boosters who qualify for disabled parking permits. Palmer and Kitterman questioned whether the switch in disabled parking was engineered simply to give more parking spots to high-ranking Boosters.

But Jerry Kutz, the boosters' Vice President for Communications, said the boosters were apprised by Wagner's office of the changes in disabled parking but did not initiate the new policy. He said the 50 spaces will be assigned by the Boosters' priority system (financial contributions), but will still be reserved for those with disabilities.

"We have a lot of Seminole Booster members who meet the standard of need as well," Kutz said. "(The new plan) wasn't done to benefit the boosters. The university did it in best interests of all concerned."

Gerald Ensley writes for the Tallahassee Democrat

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