ABINGDON, Va. — Abingdon Zoning Administrator Jason Boswell said “no” Tuesday to Washington County Administrator Jason Berry’s request to consider whether the current business zoning of Abingdon’s vacant Kmart would allow it to be used as a courthouse.
“I have considered your request and have determined that Courthouse is not a permitted use in the B-2 General Business District,” Boswell wrote to Berry in a Tuesday letter.
Boswell’s letter states that use of a courthouse is permitted only in Abingdon’s “Old and Historic District.”
The current county courthouse on Main Street in downtown Abingdon is 150 years old, is about half the size needed, lacks adequate parking and has security issues. County officials have been trying to decide whether to renovate it, construct a new building or repurpose the former Kmart building in the Exit 17 area of Abingdon for use as a courthouse.
The Washington County Board of Supervisors decided Aug. 5 to let voters decide in a Nov. 5 referendum whether to move the courthouse to the Kmart building, 300 Towne Centre, at a cost of $30 million.
But there is uncertainty about whether the current business district would allow it.
Berry asked Aug. 14 whether “public office” could be interpreted as “courthouse.”
Boswell responded, “My interpretation is that ‘courthouse’ and ‘public offices’ have separate and distinct meaning.”
The permitted use of “public offices,” while broad and generalized, does not include “courthouse,” Boswell wrote. “Courthouse is a specialized building in which court is held. It is not a reasonable interpretation that ‘public offices’ would include the specific use of courthouse. Likewise, none of the definitions in your letter include courthouse within the definition of public offices.”
County Attorney Lucy Phillips said Tuesday that the county now has an option to request “a zoning amendment” to allow the courthouse to be located in the business district.
With regard to the referendum, such a question on the ballot is “somewhat misleading,” Abingdon attorney Emmitt Yeary told the Board of Supervisors at its Tuesday meeting.
“I think it’s just furthering a campaign to try to promote this relocation of the courthouse to this Kmart location,” Yeary said. “I think it should say ‘That’s the Kmart building in the shopping center next to the interstate.’”
Later in the meeting, Supervisor Dwayne Ball addressed Yeary’s comments, saying, “We’re not trying to preclude anything to say that the courthouse is at Towne Centre.”
State law requires that a referendum simply state the address of the property where the courthouse is to potentially be relocated and at what cost, said Ball, who made the motion at the Aug. 5 meeting to place the referendum on November’s ballot.
Now, if the voters say no to moving the courthouse to the old Kmart, where it is not permitted, according to Boswell’s letter, the voters won’t have another chance to vote — or build a new courthouse, even in the Old and Historic District — until 2029.
That’s because referendums to move a county circuit court have a 10-year moratorium in Virginia if they fail at the ballot box.
Also related to the courthouse, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution as an “Intent to Maintain Ownership of County Courthouse Property if Proposed Relocation Occurs.”
This resolution states, “The county has committed the historic structure will not be torn down” and that the Board of Supervisors “commits to the long-term ownership, upkeep and maintenance of the county property as a courthouse or if relocated, the same level of quality maintenance for perpetuity.”
About an hour prior to the vote, public speaker Byrum Geisler questioned why the county needed to approve such a resolution, since town ordinances already require that these properties be maintained and not torn down.
“We all have responsibilities already,” Geisler said. “I would like to know why you’re making a resolution to do something you’re already required to do.”
Yeary, who owns property next to the courthouse, called the resolution “a meaningless document” and said, “This has no legal effect whatsoever.”
Geisler, in turn, asked whether the supervisors knew what financial figures the resolution might incur in keeping up the courthouse.
The supervisor did not address that financial issue.
Yet Ball directly addressed the words of Geisler, who called the resolution a “smokescreen” passed for “political purposes.”
“The idea here is not to try to plow anything through,” Ball said. “We want to make that abundantly clear.”