ABINGDON, Va. (WJHL) — Washington County, Virginia voters will decide in a November 5th referendum whether to relocate or renovate the courthouse in downtown Abingdon.
The proposal on the ballot Tuesday is to repurpose a vacant 89 thousand square foot K-Mart building located at 300 Towne Centre Drive, just off Interstate 81’s Exit 17.
Chairman Saul Hernandez said the Washington County Board of Supervisors has been looking at the issue for six years. Now, the Virginia Supreme Court has given them no choice but to find a fix. State law leaves how they fix it to the voters.
“Currently we only have two options, either to stay or to go,” said Alicia Roland, public information officer for the county.
Hernandez said there are many reasons to go.
Roland said the building is out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s more than 30 thousand square feet too small for Virginia Supreme Court standards and the lack of space is creating some major security concerns.
“We’ve had a couple of escapees here lately,” said Roland. “We currently don’t have a good holding space for the inmates as they come in for their court hearings. We had to renovate that into office space for a new judge.”
Roland said inmates are currently housed in cells that judges have to walk directly past to get to the courtroom.
In juvenile cases, she said there are children who may have been abused by adults that are forced to walk to the same corridors as the accused.
Plus, she said there’s a severe lack of parking: “We currently have 75 parking spaces at the county courthouse and we have 77 employees so there’s no space for anybody coming in.”
Hernandez said two phases of renovations for the current space would cost an estimated $57 million. He said relocating to the K-Mart building would cost about $30 million.
“I think that’s the least expensive, least intrusive, better option,” he said.
The Washington County Bar Association, representing Abingdon attorneys like Byrum Geisler, disagrees.
“The Board of Supervisors have largely buried the fact that the least expensive option based on the 2016 Thompson & Litton assessment is to fully restore the courthouse where it is,” Geisler said.
The study put the cost of that plan, which included multiple renovations, expansions and level additions, at just under $24 million–less than the K-Mart option.
Hernandez said the courthouse committee turned it down because it would be too disruptive to operations and it didn’t solve the parking problem.
Vice Mayor Cindy Patterson said the Town of Abingdon is willing to help the county fund additional parking downtown.
She’s part of Abingdon’s Town Council, which passed a resolution opposing moving the courthouse.
“I think it keeps Main Street vibrant. It supports a lot of business around town, restaurants,” Patterson said.
Hernandez said the county owns the courthouse and is committed to maintaining the building, regardless of the referendum’s outcome.
“The last thing we want is an empty shell of a building,” he said. “I think we could find some very interesting uses for it.”
County Administrator Jason Berry said there’s a chance the Town of Abingdon’s Board of Zoning Appeals may not approve the county’s application to move the courthouse from a historic district to a business district.
The board doesn’t meet until November 12th.
That means, even if voters do approve the relocation, the issue could land in circuit court if the county appeals a denial from the board, according to Berry.