The Transylvania Times -

Bar Members Want Courthouse Downtown

 

June 28, 2018



(Editor’s Note: This column was received by the paper Monday after publication and read at the county commission meeting Monday night.)

The Transylvania County Bar consists of attorneys who live and practice in Transylvania County. We represent you in court, assist you with estate planning and administration, real estate matters and anything else which requires professional legal assistance. We also use the courthouse almost every single day.

The county commissioners did not include us in the talks regarding the courthouse in recent years, but some citizens have asked us to make a public position statement, which seems to be even more important considering the commissioners’ statement that no one has opposed their decision to build a new courthouse on Morris Road. We don’t all agree on every aspect of what the county should do with the courthouse, but the overwhelming consensus of our members is that the courthouse function should stay downtown, and that the county commissioners should seek additional options on how to address the needs of the courthouse while keeping it downtown.

There is no doubt that the county has done a thorough job of analyzing and studying the needs of the courthouse. The historic courthouse is iconic and has served our county well over time, but it is pretty well established that there are space and safety issues associated with the courthouse in its current state that need to be addressed by the county commissioners. Some of these issues overlap. Currently, prisoners, judges, court staff and the public all use the same entrance. For the most part, we all use the same elevator and hallway. Prisoners are often held in the jury room while awaiting trial. The lack of separate entrances for prisoners and court staff poses a significant risk. The members of the Transylvania County Sheriff’s Department assigned to court security detail have done an exceptional job of managing these risks, but we agree that it would be appropriate for the county commissioners to look for a solution that increases safety for everyone.

There is also a space issue with the courthouse. Currently we have a large courtroom and a small courtroom. The small courtroom’s capacity is very limited, and on days when the large courtroom is needed for Superior Court, sizeable dockets in the small courtroom can create a large overflow of persons standing in the hallway or the second-floor lobby. The crowd usually decreases significantly by 11 a.m., or so, but it is undeniable that the space is overcrowded for a period of time some mornings. This is not only a fire hazard, but creates awkward and potentially dangerous scenarios as attorneys, judges and court personnel must walk through the gauntlet of people filling the hallways. We agree that a second larger courtroom is needed and would address this issue.

We believe that each of these issues can be addressed without moving the courthouse out of downtown and without the tremendous expense and burden on the citizens associated with the move to Morris Road. While the county commissioners have thoroughly studied the courthouse needs, we have not seen evidence that supports the notion that they have thoroughly studied the different options for addressing the courthouse needs while keeping it downtown.

It is our understanding that the county commissioners and county administration have not even consulted their own planning department or planning board, or the city, regarding the impact of relocating the courthouse. We believe that there are multiple possible solutions to addressing the courthouse needs that would keep the courthouse downtown, cost much less than the proposed $32-million facility on Morris Road and be better for Transylvania County and our downtown.

We believe that there are likely options that would address the courthouse needs within the footprint of property owned by the county, but if not, the county has the power to acquire land if it determines that the courthouse needs cannot be addressed on the current property. Land has been available for sale immediately adjacent to the courthouse in the very recent past. Some of these parcels may have recently sold or may be under contract, but the county has the power to acquire these properties for the purpose of expanding the courthouse if the county commissioners determine it is necessary.

The City of Brevard has also made known that it is willing to consider undedicating East Probart Street Extension and deeding that land to the county. Have these options been thoroughly explored, or are the commissioners and Mosely Architects simply brushing them aside to build a new courthouse?

Whether the county wants to take a minimalistic approach cost wise and construction wise, or invest in substantial renovations or new construction, it is not difficult to conceive different possibilities that address the courthouse needs downtown at a lesser or similar cost to our citizens.

Taking a minimalistic approach, the small courtroom could be made much larger by removing non-load-bearing walls and relocating the district attorney’s office to the first floor (where the public defender’s office is located), or to the former county administration office adjacent to the courthouse (the building which is owned by the county but is rented to the WNC Military History Museum). It would not be difficult to create additional entrances for judges and prisoners. Removing the district attorney’s office from this floor could also create space for a larger and separate holding cell for prisoners who are waiting on their court appearance. Parking could also be addressed for a fraction of the cost. Parking decks could be constructed in the overflow lot across Gaston Street or on a portion of the existing parking lot without significantly detracting from the aesthetic appeal fronting Broad Street and Main Street.

If the county wants to invest more significantly in new construction, consideration could be given to demolishing the rear portion of the courthouse and/or the former county administration building which presently hosts the WNC Military History Museum. That would create ample space to build a new structure on the back of the historic courthouse that could house multiple larger courtrooms, multiple elevators and separate entrances for prisoners and judges/court staff. It may even be feasible to do so in a manner that utilizes the front entrance of the courthouse as other space issues are addressed. This could be complemented by one or more parking structures tucked back behind the courthouse.

There are many options that could be considered but have not. It is not accurate for the county commissioners to state that the options have been studied thoroughly.

At the end of the day, this is a decision that should be made by the county commissioners and by the citizens of Transylvania County on a bond referendum. While the county commissioners should be applauded for their willingness to address the courthouse needs, there should be the same amount of effort and public input into identifying suitable alternatives to address those needs while keeping the courthouse function downtown. County commissioners should also better study the potential economic impacts on downtown business, downtown property values, downtown office rentals, and traffic and other impacts on the neighborhoods near Morris Road prior to making any decision to move the courthouse. The commissioners should also look at other communities across the state that faced this situation, and study what they did and why.

We look with pride at having one of the few remaining historic courthouses where the legal needs of our citizens can be addressed. It keeps us unique and improves the overall quality of life in Transylvania County. We submit that moving the courthouse function, regardless of what eventually might move into the courthouse, effectively cuts the heart out of our county. The idea of equal justice under law is central to our democracy, and a county courthouse is central to that concept. As such, it should always remain in the public view to remind us of what is vital to our way of life.

Therefore, a majority of the members of the Transylvania County Bar hope that the county commissioners will reconsider their decision and engage the planning board, the planning department, the city, an additional architect and other stakeholders, to thoroughly review the options available to address the needs of our courthouse.

Rick Daniel

Davis Whitfield-Cargile

Brian Stretcher

Mack McKeller

Margaret Hunt

Donald Jordan

Michael Pratt

Gayle Ramsey

Hannah Camenzind

Tony Dalton

Ashley Fortune

Michael Eubanks

Brian Philips

Will Cathey

Paul Averette

Nikki Melby

David Neumann

Doug Campen

Barbara Lubin

Brentley Cronquist

 
 

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