Courthouse opponents draw 'red line' with new 'smart plan'

Misinformation and confusion abound as public continues discussion of controversial annex

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The county commissioners have a real problem, and they are trying to solve it. “But they don't have enough information."
Ed Brannon, president of the Trust

By Charles Reynolds

— The continuing campaign to shape public opinion about the courthouse annex continued Wednesday evening in the library's community room, as members of the Historic Preservation Trust of Pike County took their plans to residents.

Ed Brannon, president of the Trust, joked that he was painted as the “radical extremist” among the opponents of the annex.

“It's the glasses,” he said. “It's the green frames.”

But it was Brannon's calm that kept some of the more extreme accusations from dominating the meeting.

At one point, a member of the public asked if the commissioners had a “secret agenda." Brannon said it's easy to vilify people who don't have the same opinion as you do, “especially if they are not here.” He said the commissioners have a real problem, and they are trying to solve it.

“But they don't have enough information,” he said.

Brannon's easygoing style couldn't keep confusion and misinformation from creeping in.

Some insinuated that the commissioners have little respect for the Architectural Review Board, stating that their attitude was “nuts to ARB.” To the contrary, the commissioners did go before the ARB late last year with preliminary plans and were told they looked okay. Commissioner Matt Osterberg said he was given some “suggestions” about the historical architecture. Although ARB member Kevin Stroyan has since changed his mind, he initially approved of the plans.

Another claim was that the members of the Trust were confident the ARB “would not approve the demolition of the Kentworthy building,” when in truth, they did so at the initial meeting last year.

Sean Strub repeated the claim that the court expansion is not needed as planned because of the decline in population. Although it is true the population has declined and the number of court cases have dropped slightly, the caseload of the court has “increased 200 percent in the previous ten years” (according to the latest State of the Court Report). The courts hear 18 cases a day, totaling 87 hours a week. The civil filings workload is increased due to “new laws and procedures,” which require “additional hearings for juvenile matters and Protection from Abuse cases.” And, due to the economic downturn and new regulations regarding mortgage foreclosures, additional conferences must be added to inform defendants of their rights. Coupled with the mortgage issues of the downturn are familial matters that have increased, such as divorce, custody and child support hearings.

Also repeated was the misunderstanding about a “training facility” in the new courthouse. Commissioners insisted it's not a training room but a muster location where court officers would get their daily briefings. It does say “training room” on the blueprints, but its true purpose was explained over a month ago.

Commissioners said McGoey, Hauser and Edsall are the county engineers, and it was their right to ask them to come up with plans that fit county specifications. They disputed the idea that they would be awarded the eventual bid for the work without any competition. But opponents remained unconvinced.

“The bigger the project, the more money they (McGoey, Hauser and Edsall) make,” Strub said, saying they were given the project without bidding. Someone asked how the commissioners could get away with no-bid contracts on this.

A point of view

Brannon presented the Trust's alternative plans, drawn up by the architecture students, that had the Kentworthy building renovated on the outside and a court expansion building behind it. That plan shaved 900 square feet off the county's current plans. But it was much taller than the existing courthouse.

The next plan, which he dubbed the “smart plan,” reduced the footprint “about 20 percent” and still included the renovated building in front. Cost savings of this plan are estimated by the group to be $1.9 million.

Opponents showed unflattering slides showing the “concept” of the new expansion as a big gray block sitting beside the existing courthouse. The slides showing their preferred plans, which included a nice rendering of the Kentworthy building with a smaller gray block behind it.

The architects who donated time to make the plans for the Trust were architectural students who did a rendering of the proposal. In fact, the “smart plan” Brannon recommends includes a square footage number but not how they should be arranged. He simply states that the smaller footprint, keeping the Kentworthy building, would save about 20 percent of the current planned building and save $1.9 million. How the layout is arranged would be up to them, he said.

A determined public

“We're going right to the end of this, even if we have to stagger across the finish line,” said Bill Kiger, talking about breaking through the political wall of the project. He blames the commissioners for not “incorporating the values of this historic district” into the plans. And he said their apparent was the “nature of political power — once they get in they fell they can do whatever they want.”

Brannon began to say he didn't know if there was an annual budget for maintenance of the Kentworthy building and the courthouse. Kiger said they “choose to do the maintenance they do.”

Brannon said the project would take three to four years. Kiger added that it was going to "take longer because we have a lawyer.” And Strub pointed out that if the county got their request fast tracked by the borough council, the “Kentworthy can be demolished by the end of the year.”

Opponents of the existing plan said minutes of the commissioners' meetings are not posted where residents can learn about things going on in the county if they are unable to make the twice a month morning meetings. Another point was that despite the county's offer of $40,000 to help with the move to nearby county lots, the actual cost of moving it was almost prohibitive. Dick Snyder made calls and found the building move would cost $120,000, the moving of utilities another $50,000 and all the assorted septic and foundation laying costs added up to nearly $500,000.

Jerry Beaver offered the Trust use of the Historic Milford Theater for future meetings. “Because we have over 150 people here,” said Kiger.

There were about 70 people in attendance.

Kiger insists building the annex is avoidable and needed to be fought any way possible. He put forth a “implied red line” for opponents to stand on: The Kentworthy building must stay, the old courthouse must be renovated to its former glory, and the integrity of the historic district must be maintained.

All the alternative plans are simply footprint plans with no internal layouts where offices, courts, sheriff's facilities, storage, filing systems or chambers will go. No electrical systems, plumbing, HVAC or other utilities are laid out in the Trust's plans.

Brannon suggested that the public write letters to the commissioners at 506 Broad Street, write letters to the editors of local papers, and show up at meetings.

The next public meeting to discuss the project will be the ARB meeting, July 23.

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