Completed in 1868, the current Washington County Courthouse was the only one built in Virginia during Reconstruction, replacing the previous courthouse that was built at the same site in 1850 and burned by a Union soldier in 1864, according to a historical marker posted outside the building in Abingdon.
There is a lot of history there, especially considering that this is the fourth county courthouse to occupy the same site — the first one having been built in 1800, the marker notes.
Now, more than 150 years after it was built, the courthouse is straining to contain all of the county operations that are based there.
Therefore, the Washington County supervisors are looking at options to replace or renovate and expand the courthouse, or to move county operations to a new courthouse location — the former Kmart store off Interstate 81’s Exit 17.
The current projected costs of the three options are $33 million for a new courthouse at the same site; $14 million to renovate and expand; or $25 million to upgrade the old Kmart to serve as the new courthouse.
The decision will be made following a referendum planned for November that would allow voters to say “yes” or “no” to the idea of moving the courthouse. But before that, the people of Washington County will have opportunities to learn about the options during a series of town hall meetings, one in each of the county’s seven precincts.
To assist in getting the word out, the Washington County Board of Supervisors voted May 28 to pay $57,000 to a public relations firm, The Corporate Image, to conduct an educational campaign to inform residents how crowded the courthouse is and what the options are, according to a recent article by reporter Joe Tennis in the Washington County News.
If voters say “no,” the only solution would be to leave the courthouse where it is and build onto it. And if there is a majority “no” vote, state law says the county can’t schedule another referendum to move the courthouse for at least 10 years. A “yes” vote would still allow the county to choose among all three options.
Even without a vote, state court officials could deem the current courthouse inadequate and order the county to remedy the situation — at whatever cost necessary, the newspaper story noted.
Besides the cramped quarters, parking at the courthouse is also a serious problem. County officials say there are only about 75 parking spaces, and most of those are used by courthouse workers. Visitors must fend for themselves, seeking out other downtown parking. At the Kmart store site, there would be about 350 parking spaces.
So, what should the county do about the courthouse situation?
The Kmart site appears to be the best choice all around, as it solves two major problems: lack of sufficient space and scarcity of parking. This option also helps the community by repurposing an abandoned building. The $25 million price tag also seems to be a better option than spending $33 million on a new courthouse, then still not having adequate parking.
We would also hope the historic downtown courthouse can be preserved and perhaps turned into a community attraction — as a museum or activities center.
What seems to be clear is that something needs to be done, and soon.
So, we urge county residents to take part in the coming community meetings and to let county officials hear your ideas and opinions on the courthouse plans.
Your input is important.