ABINGDON, Va. — The Washington County Board of Supervisors is now looking for a neutral way to inform the public of the option to potentially move the county courthouse to Abingdon’s former Kmart building.
County Attorney Lucy Phillips addressed the board at its Tuesday meeting, offering a draft of an essay that could potentially include points explaining the need to improve space, access, parking and security at the 150-year-old Washington County Courthouse in downtown Abingdon.
But a few members of the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday said they have concerns with the current wording, namely, “Out of four options that were considered, removal to the proposed new address was forecast to be the least expensive option for a solution that would fully resolve courthouse needs for at least 30 years. The maximum the County could spend for purchase and renovation is 30 million dollars.”
On Tuesday, the board agreed to meet with the county’s facilities committee to help draft a new version of the words for a mailer, slated to be sent to all registered voters in Washington County prior to the Nov. 5 election, when voters are being asked in a referendum whether the courthouse should be moved.
Also on Tuesday, the county issued a news release announcing that the current courthouse will be open for tours on Oct. 1 and Oct. 15, 1-7 p.m. both days.
Free tours are being offered on a first-come, first-served basis, they will last approximately 30 minutes and be led by Washington County Sheriff’s Office personnel.
“We’re making these tours available so that residents can come in and see the structure and the issues we are dealing with in terms of space, access and security,” County Administrator Jason Berry said in a statement.
“It also provides the opportunity for residents to talk with someone who works in the facility on a daily basis,” Berry said. “We want to make as much information available as possible so that voters can make an informed decision during the November referendum.”
In Tuesday’s release, Berry said, “We want the public’s input on this matter. Whether you want the functions of the courthouse to stay where they are or move to a new location, we encourage residents to participate, ask questions, and vote on November 5.”
The news release states that a “yes” vote “will trigger a move to the new site.”
Yet county leaders have still failed to gain zoning approval from the town of Abingdon for that Kmart property to become a courthouse. In fact, Abingdon Town Council approved a resolution — and approved a motion — against rezoning that property.
On Tuesday, the county board voted 5-2 to instruct Phillips to file an appeal of the current zoning with Abingdon’s Board of Zoning Appeals. Supervisor Phillip McCall and Vice Chairwoman Allison Mays voted against the motion made by Supervisor Dwayne Ball, seconded by Supervisor Randy Pennington.
Two Abingdon attorneys, Byrum Geisler and Emmitt Yeary, criticized the potential move during the meeting.
Yeary chastised the Board of Supervisors for issuing a statement at its last meeting, calling the town of Abingdon “an obstructionist” for upholding its zoning laws.
“It’s sad for the county,” said Yeary, who owns property next to the current courthouse on Abingdon’s Main Street.
Geisler, in turn, said the county’s flyers must contain a “neutral statement.”
On Tuesday, Geisler asked why the Board of Supervisors did not publicize a $24 million fix for the courthouse that could have renovated the building at a cheaper cost than the estimated $30 million to buy and renovate the Kmart.
“The public deserves to know about that option, and they need to be fully informed,” Geisler said.
Following the meeting, Geisler also questioned why county leaders did not present drawings of what the courthouse would look like with additions. Yet, he said, county leaders hired a consultant to produce drawings that showed the Kmart becoming the new courthouse.
“Being neutral means letting the public know all of the options,” Geisler said at Tuesday’s meeting. “All the options need to be presented to the citizens of the county.”