The people of Washington County have spoken: The county courthouse needs to stay in downtown Abingdon.
Not only did nearly 70% of the voters in last week’s referendum reject the idea of moving the courthouse to the former Kmart building off Interstate 81 in Abingdon, the measure lost in every precinct.
There was particularly heavy opposition in Abingdon, as expected. Town leaders not only opposed the move, they also made it virtually impossible for it to happen by signaling that they would not support rezoning that would have been necessary to move the courthouse to the new location.
“I think it’s a clear message from the people,” County Administrator Jason Berry told the Bristol Herald Courier after the votes were counted Tuesday night.
County supervisors devised the plan for the old Kmart building because of concerns by judges and county officials that the current courthouse – built in the late 1860s — has only about half the space the courts need, and there are also parking and security issues.
The move was soundly opposed by the Washington County Bar Association and downtown Abingdon businesses and merchants.
Frankly, not much of anyone seemed to be thrilled by the idea.
Which leads us to conclude that the county supervisors moved too quickly on this idea before thoroughly thinking it out.
And by forcing the referendum before they had considered all of the ramifications of moving the courthouse, supervisors have now assured that there can be no consideration of any move for at least another 10 years, under state law.
The obvious solution is one that didn’t get much support from the county officials before the referendum: renovate and expand the current courthouse, and work with the town of Abingdon to create more downtown parking spaces.
That appears to be the route that county officials are now going to take.
“I’m committed to working with the town of Abingdon on any and all projects, including what we do with the current courthouse,” Berry told the Herald Courier. “And, I think, the town has committed to the county with helping with any kind of parking solutions at the courthouse.”
A reconstituted, more inclusive courthouse committee is now expected to be formed to work up plans for renovation and expansion. Berry says the committee likely will now include Abingdon Town Manager Jimmy Morani and possibly Mayor Wayne Craig.
Town Councilman Al Bradley, who opposed the courthouse move, told the newspaper the town is ready to help with the alternate plan.
“We passed a motion that we were willing to work with the county if they wanted to stay on courthouse hill,” he said. “We didn’t want to see them make the move to the Kmart. And we’re glad to work with them, and, as far as I know, we’ll continue to work with them.”
This is as it should be. It’s quite absurd that the potential problems that came up in the days leading up to the referendum — including that the town would probably never rezone the Kmart site — should have been resolved before the vote was called.
Now is the time for Washington County and Abingdon officials to unite to solve the courthouse problems in a considered and orderly manner, taking all concerns into account before finalizing their plans.
But they also need to act soon and not let the courthouse issues continue without a firm plan to set things right. If they don’t, state court officials could deem the current courthouse inadequate and order a remedy — at whatever cost necessary.