Ecumen Customers Rally Alexandria City Hall To Save Their Golf Carts

Sep 24th, 2009 3:51pm

Seniors tell Alexandria: Give us back our golf cart!

by Jon Tevlin

ALEXANDRIA, MINN. - Joan Fjoslien grew up not far from her current residence, Bethany Community, a nursing home in Alexandria. Before she was confined to a wheelchair in 1998, she loved to get out in the fresh air, watch the trees turn and see the geese gather for the annual migration.

That's why a ride in Bethany's golf cart-powered wagon, her wheelchair strapped into the canopy-topped vehicle, was often a highlight of her week.

"We would just putt down the street," Fjoslien said. "Putt-putt-putt. We would drive by the houses and talk about who lived in this one and who lived in that one. I'd see some of my students and wave."

But Fjoslien and other residents at Bethany have watched some of summer's most glorious weather slide by as their "renegade wagon" has been grounded by Alexandria's City Council over safety issues and a recently issued moratorium on golf cart permits to drive on local streets.

It's an issue that has popped up from St. Louis Park to Sauk Rapids, Afton to Bagley, as an aging population, combined with high gas prices, have caused some to turn to a slower, more genteel means of transportation: the slothful golf cart. Some communities have embraced the use of golf carts on side streets as a quieter, greener way for residents to run short errands.

Bethany has driven its customized cart, equipped with headlights and other safety features, for 18 years. It has hauled residents who otherwise have difficulty getting out on leisurely cruises around tree-canopied neighborhoods. It has taken them to a local parade to welcome veterans home from Iraq. They have had no accidents or injuries.

Alexandria has had a law in place to allow golf carts for years, it's just that nobody knew it, according to Grady Third, director of support services at Bethany. When gas prices soared last year, more people got interested in carts, a local dealer asked the council to expand the law and "they suddenly became aware that anyone could get a permit and extrapolated it out to the worst possible conditions," Third said.

Maybe they envisioned senior citizen golf cart gridlock at early-bird specials, or slow-motion head-ons. So they passed a moratorium on permits, and Bethany's cart-and-wagon tours ended well before the splendid weather. The council argued that residents could use a local bus company or pull the wagon with a tractor.

"Pulling somebody behind a tractor is not terribly dignified," Third said. "We don't want our tractor confused with an implement of husbandry. Pulling someone behind a golf cart is dignified. It's slow, it's quiet."

It also fits with the core values of Bethany, which is part of Ecumen, the state's largest provider of care for seniors. "This is all about empowering our residents," Third said. "We are enabling aging in a new and valid way, and we encourage them to get out in their communities. This is our neighborhood."

About 25 residents did get out, to a recent council meeting on the issue. They have written letters and become politically active, he said.

Neither the city's mayor nor council members could be reached. But in a letter to Bethany, Council Member Sara Carlson said that "our charge is to do what is best for the city as a whole." Traffic and safety issues "make it very difficult to think that it is secure and safe for golf carts to be on our streets," she wrote.

According to Bethany's research, at least 30 communities in Minnesota allow golf carts on residential streets, and state law allows communities to issue permits, but doesn't include safety provisions. The Economic Recovery Act encourages the use of alternative transportation, Third said, but many towns haven't caught up with the issue yet.

"There are places in Florida where all you see are golf carts," he said.

Common sense should supersede more rules, Third said. And common sense dictates that some senior citizens should be able to take a nice ride once in awhile if they abide by the rules and drive friendly. "They get out in the fresh air, see the neighborhood and wave at people," he said. "I don't see a problem."