The Washington County Board of Supervisors made the right choice when it voted Aug. 5 to allow the county’s voters to decide whether to move court operations and courtrooms from the 150-year-old downtown Abingdon courthouse to a new location in the old Kmart building off Interstate 81’s Exit 17.
With this action, a question will be put on the Nov. 5 ballot asking for approval to buy the abandoned Kmart building for use as a new courthouse, with a cost of up to $30 million, allowing the county to alleviate the serious overcrowding at the current courthouse.
If the voters approve, then the county would buy the former Kmart building for $5.25 million and renovate it to accommodate the courts.
But if the voters say “no,” the courts would remain where they are for now, and the courthouse most likely would be renovated and expanded.
Although there seems to be plenty of opposition to moving court operations, much of that also seems to come from people who have a vested interest in keeping the courts where they are.
That includes the lawyers of the Washington County Bar Association, who recently voted unanimously to oppose moving the courts. Many of those lawyers have established their offices in the downtown area within walking distance of the historic courthouse, so a move to the new location would be inconvenient for them.
Some downtown Abingdon property owners have also expressed opposition to the move, suggesting that downtown property values would fall should the courts move to the old Kmart.
There are credible arguments for and against moving the courts, and they should all be taken into account by voters when they make their own decisions on how to mark their ballots — “yes” for the move, or “no” to keep the courts where they are.
One thing is clear, however: Taking no action on improving the crowded conditions at the current courthouse most likely would result in the state Supreme Court forcing the county to act — and perhaps even making the decision as to what must be done,
The courts have just 47,000 square feet of space in the current courthouse but need about 88,000 square feet. The renovated Kmart building would provide 89,000 square feet of interior space for the courts and would also provide ample parking for court employees and visitors. Parking is severely limited now in downtown Abingdon.
Another concern of opponents of the move is that the historic courthouse — built just after the Civil War — might be abandoned and allowed to fall into disrepair or, gasp, even be demolished.
Neither of those scenarios is likely, as there have already been some good suggestions put forth about new uses for the old courthouse, including as a museum. No one is seriously considering allowing the courthouse to be abandoned or torn down.
The key takeaway from the Board of Supervisors’ decision to put the courthouse question on the Nov. 5 ballot is that this will allow the people of Washington County to decide the issue — not just our elected officials or those who have their own interests at heart. This is exactly how it should be.
“The people will decide this, not the Board of Supervisors,” Supervisor Mike Rush said during the Aug. 5 meeting.
The county plans to send out mailers to the 36,000-plus registered voters in advance of the referendum to explain the options.
Let’s hope that Washington County’s voters will inform themselves on the issue and vote the way they see fit on Nov. 5. This is the fairest and most reasonable way to decide this important issue.
It’s also important that the voters show enough interest to turn out at the polls and choose whichever option they believe is best for the future of Washington County.