Commissioners Approve New Courthouse - Brevard, NC


November 16, 2017

A new county courthouse will be built beside the public safety complex on Morris Road.

That was the unanimous decision Tuesday by the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners.

Specifically, commissioners voted for a new courthouse that would include a “shelled” third level for future growth. It’s currently estimated that it could cost the county roughly $31.1 million to build a three-level structure, which could include three district courtrooms and one superior courtroom, along with all the necessary offices.

It would be a roughly three-year undertaking before completion, including a year of design work and awarding of a construction bid, 18 to 20 months for construction, and up to three months to move in and get set up.

On Tuesday, commissioners did not approve a design for the building, the method to pay for it or what should happen to the current courthouse building. Comments by some of the commissioners suggested the historic building would continue to be preserved.

Prior to commissioners making a decision, seven members of the public spoke about the courthouse, with four, including court officials, calling for a new building, one person advocating courthouse operations remain where they are, one person suggesting the current courthouse would make a good museum and District Attorney Greg Newman saying a decision was needed to improve courthouse functions.

Commissioner Page Lemel made the motion for the county to build a new courthouse. Commissioner Kelvin Philips seconded the motion.

Before voting, commissioners spoke.

Commissioner Jason Chappell noted that discussions about the courthouse have gone on for several years, but he also said the county has been active during that time to try and make improvements to the current building.

He said the county managed to get another decade of use out of the courthouse through improvements and moving some offices out of the building.

He said the county needs to plan for the future, with court case trends increasing.

“We are not seeing less crime. We are not seeing less safety issues,” he said.

Safety issues, particularly cited by court officials, have been the main argument to build a new courthouse.

Chappell said the possible moving of courthouse functions beside the law enforcement facility was included in the original planning of the Morris Road site. Chappell commended previous officials for doing so.

A third-floor shell at the new site is also good planning, he suggested, noting a similar thing was done to the Department of Social Services building, and that original shell floor is now being used.

Lemel said she knows that the current courthouse is viewed as a “vibrant node of our community life.”

She said someone who emailed commissioners called the courthouse the “hub” of county government.

Lemel said that has not been the case for several years. The building’s function now is court services.

She mentioned the safety issues and problems with scheduling and delays with court actions because of the current site. In 2015, Transylvania County had the highest DSS and Family Court continuance rate in the state.

“We are not serving our citizens well when we can’t get their cases through the court system,” Lemel said. “Our citizens deserve better in their pursuit of justice than what we can currently provide.”

She said the current courthouse is “iconic” and “the symbol of our entire community.” She said the building deserves to be “valued” and “cared for.”

It needs to be returned, she said, to “its status as a vibrant structure, with its front door thrown open to our citizens and our Main Street.”

Commissioner Mike Hawkins explained why he came to his decision.

He said his decision-making process includes four factors. One is “best practices” and how other communities address a similar issue and how the county may learn from them.

He said out of the 100 county courthouses in the state, most are within a reasonable distance of downtown. As far as age, Transylvania’s courthouse, which was built in 1881, is one of the oldest. There are only three in the state that are older –Camden, Chowan and Polk. Those three counties also have smaller populations than Transylvania.

“In that case, the best practices are that North Carolina counties don’t conduct business in 19th century buildings,” Hawkins said.

The second factor Hawkins said he looks at is whether the issue has been thoroughly analyzed.

He said the county has looked at the issue not only for a long time but also has been diligent in the different options and opportunities available.

The third factor, Hawkins said, is the options. The options were to do nothing, build a new courthouse, or renovate and add to the current site. None are perfect, Hawkins said, and a case could be made against any of the three.

Doing nothing is not an option, he said, because there are safety and other concerns at the current site. Fixing the current site is “doable and complex,” he said, and would “include partnerships with other stakeholders that at this point we have not been able to engage with.”

He described the “solutions” for the current site as “makeshift,” but it would keep the courthouse downtown.

The option to build a new courthouse, he said, provides a better opportunity to correct the identified safety and other issues but “runs the risk” of the downtown losing “vitality.”

The fourth factor, Hawkins said, are what are the impacts, including the unintentional ones, of one’s decision.

It’s like chess, he said, trying to predict the next four of five moves.

The do-nothing option has short-and long-term issues, Hawkins said.

Renovating the current courthouse would mean some “short-term consequences but more long-term consequences,” he said.

Building a new courthouse would mean “significant” short-term consequences but “maybe not as much long-term consequences.”

Hawkins said he “felt confident” with his eventual vote.

Phillips said he agreed with the points already made by his fellow commissioners. He said one of the things all of the commissioners are concerned about is the cost.

The cost of constructing a new building beside the current courthouse, plus a 300-car parking deck, would be about $22.3 million, not including the cost to buy land for the parking deck. This option was expected to only make due for the next 15 years and then something else would need to be done. A new courthouse at Morris Road would be expected to meet the county’s need for at least the next 50 years.

Phillips said the county also doesn’t know the “upkeep” costs for the current courthouse if it stuck with it for the next 15 years.

“Financially speaking, it makes sense to build a new facility,” he said.

Phillips went on to talk about possible future uses for the current courthouse, mentioning how Swain County’s former courthouse has been turned into a library/museum, plus shops.

In Sylva, the old courthouse, he said, has been turned into a library, for one.

Phillips believes there will be good options for Transylvania’s historic courthouse.

He also believes the commissioners are making an “informed decision,” and one that hasn’t been “rushed.”

Commission Chairman Larry Chapman talked about how the process started a number of years ago and about the efforts in the past several years to get feedback from all the stakeholders in the community.

“The thing that usually rose to the top in the early beginnings was the safety,” he said.

Chapman mentioned how the prisoner transport van drops inmates off at the courthouse front entrance and they are escorted into court.

“This is a disaster waiting to happen,” he said.

He said the county got roughly 10 more years out of the courthouse but it still came at a cost. He repeated the earlier argument that renovating the current courthouse will only put off another decision down the road.

He also mentioned the cost of having to build a parking deck and having to find the property to locate it.

He said the current courthouse building “isn’t going anywhere,” and it will be up to the community on how the county determines its use.

He said the building and the property could be revamped to make the downtown even more “vibrant.”

He said there was also a lot of work still to be done on the new courthouse, including the financing and designing, and that the public will get its say.

The motion to approve the building of a new courthouse was approved 5-0.

In other action at Tuesday’s meeting:

•Commissioners approved the Transylvania Heritage Museum taking over the operations of the Silvermont Museum. The Friends of Silvermont no longer have the volunteer base to operate the museum.

•Kristen Gentry was appointed to the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council.

•Commissioners approved the purchase of a self-contained breathing apparatus for the Brevard Fire Department, which covers the Sylvan Valley 2 Fire District in the county. The equipment costs $313,750, with the city receiving a $265,715 FEMA grant to help pay for it. The rest of the costs will be roughly shared between the city and Sylvan Valley 2 Fire District.

•Commissioners approved a five-year lease on a 2017 dozer for use at the landfill. The monthly payments are roughly $5,000.

•Commissioner Phillips has missed several meetings in the past few months because of illness. He addressed the audience Tuesday about his treatment for cancer and that he received recent news that the treatment has been successful.

He thanked the public for all its thoughts and prayers.


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