ABINGDON, Va. — The decision on whether the vacant Kmart near I-81’s Exit 17 could be considered for use as a courthouse is now in the hands of Abingdon’s zoning administrator.
A public hearing has also been canceled for the Aug. 26 planning commission meeting, now that Stephen Spangler, representing Towne Centre of Abingdon LLC, has withdrawn his request for a text amendment to include “courthouse” as one of the uses of the vacant Kmart building.
Earlier this week, Washington County Administrator Jason Berry sent a letter to Abingdon Town Manager Jimmy Morani requesting that the Kmart building at 300 Towne Centre be zoned for use as a courthouse “if such relocation is approved by voter referendum on November 5.”
Morani, in turn, sent the letter to Zoning Administrator Jason Boswell for his decision. “Up to statute,” Morani said, “it’s the zoning administrator’s responsibility.”
At Thursday’s Abingdon Town Council meeting, Mayor Wayne Craig said Berry’s letter and request has now put a “big burden” on Boswell to make the “big decision” on the building.
Boswell replied by saying that he would not express a view on the matter until he has spoken to the town’s legal counsel, Cameron Bell.
Yet, at a July 24 meeting of the Washington County Bar Association, Bell publicly spoke against moving the county courthouse from Abingdon’s historic district to the Kmart, and he voted against the move as part of the bar association.
Asked Thursday by the Bristol Herald Courier if he could still give Boswell unbiased legal advice on the Kmart zoning, based on recently expressing his personal view, Bell said, “I am not answering that.”
A few minutes later, Bell said, “Am I going to recuse myself as legal counsel? No.”
Berry’s letter to Morani states, “The Towne Centre property is zoned B-2 General Business, which includes ‘Professional, public and general offices’ as uses that are permitted by right. The County submits that the courthouse is a public office building, permitted by right in the B-2 zoning district, and we request your official determination on this designation.”
According to Morani, statute requires that the town respond within 90 days to Berry’s letter — a period that actually stretches a week beyond the Nov. 5 election when voters decide whether to expand the courthouse at its current location or move operations to the Kmart.
“I don’t like the way this is being handled by the county,” Craig said Thursday. “We’re in a constant state of confusion. They have consistently changed their requests.”
Relocating the county courthouse from downtown Abingdon to the Kmart could have a “devastating effect not only on property values but on the vitality and energy of this town,” property owner Ramsey White told the Town Council at Thursday’s meeting.
“I urge Town Council to reject any idea of moving the courthouse off of Main Street,” said White, a retired dentist and former member of Abingdon’s planning commission.
“You can look at other towns who have abandoned their courthouses at the center of town and moved out to the outskirts,” White said. “The downtown quickly deteriorates into nothing but empty storefronts.”
County officials say they want the courthouse to remain standing — even if the court functions were moved to the Kmart.
But, if such a move was made, White predicted the courthouse building “will sit up there for years and years and years empty and deteriorating.”
White, for one, questioned why county officials appear to be pushing the move to the Kmart when other options exist to rebuild and expand the courthouse.
“There seems to be a mysterious force driving this,” White said. “And I think it will be one of the worst decisions ever made in the history of Abingdon.”