The county Board of Supervisors is expected to decide Monday whether to file a court petition to hold a November referendum on the possibility of moving the Circuit Court facilities from the crowded county courthouse in downtown Abingdon.
The action needs to take place Monday to ensure that the question can be put on the November ballot, as an order from the court to call for the vote would need to be issued by Aug. 16 to meet the ballot deadline.
While some opposition to moving the court has been lining up since the Board of Supervisors began floating the referendum idea in June, just holding the vote won’t mean that the board actually has to make a move.
What the referendum would do — if it’s approved by the voters — is give the supervisors the authority to act as they see fit. Doing nothing would accomplish nothing, other than perhaps prompt the Circuit Court to make its own decision to require the county to expand space for its now woefully overcrowded operations.
The current courthouse has just 48,000 square feet of space but needs at least 88,000 square feet for its current needs, county supervisors have been told.
The supervisors are looking at options either to replace or renovate and expand the courthouse, or to move court and county operations to a new courthouse location in the former Kmart store off Interstate 81’s Exit 17.
Projected costs of the three options are $57 million for a new courthouse at the same site; $15 million to renovate and expand (though a new courthouse would likely need to be constructed after another 10 years); or $43 million to upgrade the old Kmart to serve as the new courthouse.
Last Wednesday, about 50 members of the Washington County Bar Association voted unanimously to recommend that the courthouse be kept at its current location and urged the Board of Supervisors to have it expanded to meet future needs.
Their position is not only understandable but also somewhat self-serving. Many of them have offices within walking distance of the courthouse, and they would find it inconvenient to have to drive to a new location a few miles away to do business in the courts. They want the supervisors to hold off on calling for a referendum.
Additionally, some Abingdon residents expressed concerns at a town hall meeting last week that moving the courthouse operations out of downtown might cause a drop in downtown real estate values. The meeting was the first in a series of forums held by the county to gather public input on options for expanding or moving court operations.
At the meeting, some attendees also expressed concern about potentially losing retail space in Abingdon if the old Kmart building is converted into a courthouse. The building now is vacant, however. It’s owned by the Abingdon-based parent of Food City, and no plans have yet surfaced for any new retail tenants.
Completed in 1868, the Washington County Courthouse was built during Reconstruction, replacing the previous courthouse erected at the same site in 1850, which was burned by a Union soldier in 1864, according to a historical marker posted outside the building.
The current facility is the fourth county courthouse to occupy the site, with the first one having been built in 1800, the marker notes.
It doesn’t seem likely that moving court and other county operations out of downtown would have much impact, if any, on property values because there are no plans whatsoever to tear the old courthouse down.
During a meeting last week, the Abingdon Town Council discussed options for the building should courthouse operations move away. According to the Washington County News, County Administrator Jason Berry said ideas include relocating the library or Chamber of Commerce to the building or turning it into a museum or boutique hotel.
Any decision would not be made until voters approve the idea of moving the courthouse.
But getting that question on the November ballot ensures that the county supervisors have the option to take action, pending approval of the idea.
Sitting on our hands and waiting will get us nowhere, and that’s a bad idea. Let the referendum move forward.