The Transylvania Times -

By Mark Todd
Staff Writer" 

Commissioners OK Renovations To Courthouse

 


Transylvania County Board of Commissioners agreed on Monday to move several county offices away from the courthouse and to renovate the vacant space into additional room for the judicial system.

The cost of all this could be in the range of at least $7 million.

The county has ample reserves to pay for the work, but exactly how the arrangements will be made has yet to be determined.

Part of the plan is to lease temporary space for county administration, the tax collector, tax assessor, and register of deeds, and then later move them into the old county library and soon to be vacant Sheriff's Office building.

Lack of space and concerns about security have plagued the courthouse for years, and Commissioner David Guice said Monday night the board has discussed the issue at least five times.

The board voted 4-1 to approve the plan, with Guice, Jason Chappell, Daryle Hogsed and Lynn Bullock in favor.

Commissioner Kelvin Phillips voted no. Phillips said he had reservations about using the old library for the administration building and a meeting room for county commissioners, which is part of the plan.

He instead wanted to talk about selling the vacant building and perhaps the old Sheriff's Office as well.

A key feature of the approved option was to move the remaining non-judicial offices from the courthouse and empty the present administration space out as quickly as possible to allow renovations to begin.

That means administration, the tax offices, and register of deeds will have to move twice, and there will be additional expense for leasing.

But board members said it's worth it to them because of the growing danger of a violent incident in the increasingly busy courthouse, with its mix of prisoners on trial, victims, attorneys, judges and the general public.

While the leasing option may move up progress by six months or so, completion of all of the work will be done in phases from 2008-2010.

Architect Rich Worley has devised plans that will better separate prisoners from other members of the public, improve security and improve access to the main courtroom upstairs, with a new elevator on the south side of the room. He said the plans would add 6,000 to 7,000 square feet of new space.

Restrooms would be improved and additional space would be created for the district attorney, public defender and jury pools.

The former administration building would be expanded and a courtroom built with room for 70 spectators. Prisoners would be removed from public contact through the use of a sally port and elevator.

Also as part of the plan, the Health Department would receive new clinic space on the third floor of the building used by the Department of Social Services by 2008.

District Attorney Jeff Hunt, Public Defender Paul Welch and Clerk of Circuit Court Rita Ashe said they were pleased with the plans.

""We're virtually tripping over one another. We in the DA's office are 100 percent in support of this,"" Hunt said.

While there has been some talk about future construction of a new courthouse, with one cost estimate reaching $18 million, Hunt, Welch and Ashe said the renovations would take care of local needs well into the future.

""You've got to deal with the security issue now. You're sitting on a bomb,"" said Welch, echoing the comments of many who have looked at the existing situation at the courthouse.

The county will be able to use the old Sheriff's Office building and jail space a few blocks south of the courthouse because it has approved plans to build a new public safety complex, to be constructed next year, on Morris Road.

The low bid for that project is just over $17 million. The new complex will also include a courtroom with equipment for video arraignments to further reduce the load on the courthouse.

Parking

One issue that the commissioners have yet to reach consensus on so far is parking.

There is general agreement among board members and county department heads that more parking is needed now and in the future in the downtown area. Parking decks are expensive and available land is scarce. One possible solution, a small parking lot on the site of an existing home on Johnson Street, again failed to win approval from the commissioners on Monday.

The vote to bring up the issue again and approve a construction bid for the parking lot failed 3-2.

The county has already purchased the land and accepted bids, but city development regulations reduced the number of spaces allowed on the property and soured Commissioners Hogsed, Bullock and Phillips on the project.

Only Guice and Chappell are willing to go ahead with the parking lot at this point. That makes residents of the nearby residential area, who have been opposed to the project, happy, but leaves the county looking for other options.

Among the county's concerns is that use of parking spaces at the nearby American Legion and First Baptist Church may be restricted in the future at the same time as visits to county offices downtown continue to increase.

 
 

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