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Halifax issues Courthouse permit, still wants changes / September 14, 2017
Halifax County has been cleared by the Town of Halifax to start work on the Courthouse Renovation Project, but town officials say they will continue to push for changes in a building plan they continue to criticize.

Speaking Tuesday night at the monthly meeting of Halifax Town Council, Mayor Kristy Johnson explained that the town’s issuance of a zoning permit for the Courthouse renovations was required by law. She said the county’s application for the permit represents a “by-right use,” hence the decision by Town Manager Carl Espy to approve the permit on Monday.

The town had withheld zoning approval as Town Council members repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the county’s plans for modernizing the dilapidated historic courthouse. While the zoning permit may no longer be an issue, discontent with the plan persists.

“I think that we can all agree that the process has been imperfect, thus leading to an imperfect product,” said Johnson of the decision to issue the zoning permit. “The plan is flawed. However, this is not the Town of Halifax’s plan. The role of the Town of Halifax in this project is zoning.”

The granting of the permit prompted the resignation of Mike Sexton from the Town Planning Commission. Sexton, who has penned a Viewpoint letter on the Courthouse issue, said that he would be of more service to the town as a taxpaying citizen rather than as a member of the planning board.

Halifax County Administrator Jim Halasz, who enlisted attorney Jeremy Carroll to press the county’s case for obtaining the permit, welcomed the Town’s decision Monday but said significant modifications to the Courthouse improvement plan are unlikely at this point.

Under a consent order with the Commonwealth, judges who sued the county to compel improvements to the building have three weeks to review the latest version of the Courthouse Renovation Project and to make any changes they deem necessary.

“I believe they (the judges) are about halfway finished with their review and I don’t see them making any significant changes to the plans,” said Halasz.

The next step is for CJMW, the county’s architectural firm, to complete final construction drawings, after which the project can be put out for bid. County officials already have sought information from prequalified companies who may be potential bidders on the project. From that advertisement, about eight companies responded that they were prequalified to carry out the Courthouse project construction.

“We’re a little bit behind, but hope to start the actual construction work in late January or early February with weather conditions having to be considered,” Halasz said. The county administrator had earlier indicated that he expected construction to start as early as the first of January.

In her remarks, Johnson outlined the zoning process that the Town followed in clearing the way for construction work to start at the Courthouse, and expressed the hope that the Board of Supervisors would take constructive criticisms of its plan to heart.

“Use of this property as a courthouse is a by-right use. Meaning that once the plan and zoning application meet all of the Town of Halifax zoning requirements and a zoning review is completed, a zoning permit must be issued,” said Johnson. “Because this is a by-right use, the zoning permit is issued by staff without the approval of our planning commission or the Town Council.

“The plan and application presented by the Board of Supervisors is now complete and the pertinent zoning requirements of the Town of Halifax have been met. Therefore the zoning permit was issued for the project Monday, Sept. 11.”

However, “Planning is not over,” added Johnson.

“I have had conversations with several of you (Town Council members) and the Board of Supervisors chair Dennis Witt. I have compiled a list of concerns that I think we can work through with the County and that are outside of the zoning issue. We as the Town of Halifax can ask them for their cooperation, but not demand it.

“There has been discussion of the Town and the County engaging in an Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to declare their desire and willingness to work together on these issues. However, we must do this respectfully and collaboratively, if we expect to be treated respectfully.”

Johnson asked each Council member to take time to consider their concerns with the product, not the process, and forward to her all of their thoughts, so they can be presented in “a comprehensive and coordinated way” in order to move this project forward in the best way possible.

“This is the County’s project, we can only ask that they consider our concerns for the betterment of the Town of Halifax and the County,” she concluded.

Espy, the town’s Zoning Administrator and town manager, explained that after the County submitted an alternate parking plan on Aug. 30, he felt compelled to approve the permit. He said in his position as zoning administrator, he had 60 days to approve the request which he had received on July 11.

Johnson also offered an apology Tuesday night for a recent Town Planning Commission meeting which she said “was not conducted in a professional manner,” an apparent reference to animosity towards county representatives who were there to observe the debate over the Courthouse plan.

“I feel that I must address the most recent planning commission meeting. Most of you attended the meeting, and I believe that most of you would agree that the meeting did not achieve its goals and was not conducted in a professional manner, in spite of Chairman Ron Reiter’s attempt to maintain decorum,” said Johnson.

“Because of that I feel I must apologize on behalf of the Town of Halifax to Mr. (Jimmy) Epps of B&B Consultants and the others in attendance.” B&B Consultants developed a streetscape plan to go with the construction at the courthouse square.

To fill the vacancy created by Sexton’s resignation, Town Council appointed Jonathan Thackston to serve on the Town Planning Commission on Tuesday night.

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