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Speakers unload on supes: ‘You should listen’

SoVaNow.com / December 07, 2017
Denied a spot on the meeting agenda, members of the Halifax County Historical Society had to wait until the end of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors’ monthly session on Monday night to express their objections to the Courthouse Renovation Project.

When their turn arrived, critics of the courthouse modernization plan unloaded.

One speaker, John Foster, told board members that after listening to the comments of local preservationists he believed supervisors should “listen to these ladies. I believe they know more about this than you do and they are probably smarter than you are.”

Making extended remarks were Historical Society president Barbara Bass and member Donna Strange, each of whom lambasted the board for making plans for the future of the early 19th century landmark without reaching out for public input.

““Why did you shut out the constitutional officers, the Town of Halifax, the local bar, the Department of Historic Resources, Preservation Virginia and the public?” asked Strange, reading from prepared remarks. She added that the State of Virginia provides a simple plan for communities to follow when upgrading courthouse facilities that explicitly calls for public involvement. It’s called the Virginia Courthouse Facility Guidelines, she explained.

Bass, offering comments in a similar vein, confirmed that she had asked to be on the board’s formal agenda for the Monday night meeting, but was turned down.

The Historical Society is asking supervisors for a pause in the project and a concurrent request to Circuit Judge Kim White for a 90-120 day delay in enforcing a court order to fix up the dilapidated courthouse building. Supervisors offered no response to the group’s request.

The county has set a Dec. 7 deadline for the acceptance of bids for construction work at the courthouse, and it has 60 days after that to decide whether to accept or reject the bids.

A letter from the Historical Society that addresses the courthouse renovation plan said more time and more citizen input is needed to “turn the work into something all citizens can be proud of when it is completed.”

Bass reminded board members that the Historical Society’s mission is to bring together people interested in preserving historical information, artifacts and structures of particular importance to Halifax County.

She pointed out that the Society was never contacted during the original, critical planning period when the courthouse renovation plan was drafted. Nor was input sought from the general public as questions about the project arose and decisions were made.

“The Society requests that the Board of Supervisors stop moving forward and comply with the Virginia Supreme Court Guidelines by establishing a committee comprised of concerned citizens, community organizations such as the Halifax County Historical Society, Commonwealth’s Attorney and County Clerk,” said Bass. “The Society sincerely hopes that the Board of Supervisors will consider its position and that of county citizens, whose responsibility will ultimately be to pay for the project.”

At the start of her remarks, Strange asked members of the audience who were attending to seek the extra time for public input on the courthouse project to stand. More than half of the audience members in the mostly-full meeting room rose in support.

Strange pointed to three areas of concern that she wanted to address.

The first concerns the lack of access at the renovated facility. She pointed out there is no secure place for judges to park and enter the expanded courthouse building without having to walk a block and cross a public street. There also is no provision for improved flow of vehicles and pedestrians between the courthouse and parking lot behind the jail.

“Why was there no drop-off handicapped entrance with easy curbside access at the side or the back of the building?” she asked.

Her second concern, said Strange, has to do with what she described as a lack of fiscal responsibility by the supervisors. Strange brought up the roughly $650,000 greater-than-expected cost to renovate temporary court facilities. She further asked why supervisors did not explore the possibility of separating the lower courts such as General District and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court from the Circuit Court.

Strange also pointed to the number of vacant downtown Halifax properties that are for sale in close proximity to the courthouse square, which could be purchased for court facilities or to build a new office for the Commonwealth’s Attorney. Such sites would allow room for secure parking for judges. That approach might also eliminate the need for temporary court facilities off-site.

Strange also asked supervisors who had given them authority to borrow money for the project and pay interest on a loan for more than a year before they had resolved traffic flow, parking and limited mobility access issues, or before the county had even discussed the courthouse plans with the Town of Halifax or updated VDOT.

Her final concern dealt with the fact that taxpayers had been kept in the dark for four years while the Courthouse Renovation Plan was being negotiated with the state judiciary.

Strange pleaded for at least one member of the board to show the courage to call for a pause in the renovation process, but her request went unheeded. Board Chairman Dennis Witt responded that Bass had been advised earlier of the county’s plans.

Also addressing the issue during the public comment period was Cheryl Watts, who echoed the call for more public input. Watts also said she felt the issue with the Commonwealth Attorney’s office should have been resolved since the office could easily have been tied to the Courthouse Renovation.

Frank Booker, a county native and town businessman, blamed both supervisors and county administrator Jim Halasz for not including the public in the deliberations. Booker said the courthouse renovation has resulted in the public’s loss of its confidence and trust in the board of supervisors.

Foster, the speaker who urged supervisors to heed the words of Bass and Strange, also noted that in the past two years he has seen board members cast only unanimous 8-0 votes. Foster said he had never seen eight men in the same room always agree on everything every time. “I’ve never seen you disagree on anything.”

Beth Robertson of Halifax said she felt the plan could still be changed if only there is time for the public to have some input in the decisions. She pointed out to the number of lots and buildings that are for sale right next to the Sheriff’s Department and the courthouse, and she thought that separating the courts could result in less expense in the long run. “With the extra time,” she said “it could be a continuing legacy for the town, the county and its residents.”

Don Wright, a county resident, cautioned the board about what he fears are coming — cost overruns — as he asked that supervisors pay close scrutiny and accountability to the courthouse renovation.

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Comments

Doesn't matter how much the building costs, how historically relevant it is or anything else. You still can't park anywhere near the courthouse "complex" in order to conduct business. Before long the parking down at the library will be restricted and then there will be nowhere to park at all.

Comments

This project is long overdue. People are more concern about history than moving forward in the 21st century. Sign of the times, modernizing and putting colonial times behind is the way to move. I hope new projects and programs finally comes to this region after years of negative living in the past politics.

Tear it down NOW !!!

Comments

H.Keith Wyche are you a native of the county? I can only hope that the Historical society will file suit seeking an TRO to stop this madness! I know that the court house needs some updating, but we could have gone to court fought the judges with the help of the General Assembly and still come out ahead. I can only hope when the two new board members take office in Jan. they can put a pause on this mess.

Comments

The BOS has bungled things tremendously, to be sure. However, decades of neglect and lack of leadership have resulted in what is happening now. The County IDA owns the Daystrom building and it is a shell. For a fraction of the soon to be over $20 million project, the County could refit the Daystrom building to include all three courts, the commonwealth attorney, social services, and the sheriff's office, but that makes too much sense.

Comments

Plenty of good, practical suggestions from those present at the hearing. Why does the BOS consistently ignore those whose best interests they pledged to represent? Some of those who spoke up should run for office asap, to get rid of the deadwood.

Preserve the beautiful and historic courthouse, save the trees, move some of the functions to other existing structures - you can park behind Main Street as well as along it and in the library and former King's lots. Progress does not equate with bulldozing history and destruction of the best of the past.

Political office does not equate with ignoring others with interest and expertise in areas of public concern. Involve the public before spending public dollars. Fail to do so at your political peril.

Does the current BOS lack all common sense, not to mention respect for the people of Halifax County's wishes? How very arrogant.

(Although I live in Kentucky, I have strong ancestral ties to Halifax County and cherish my Halifax memories).

Comments

Susan, yes our BOS does not represent what they voters want. One guy was bought an paid for by the IDA. They seem to like power for powers sake. Then they get mad when you don't respect their positions. I don't have any respect or trust for anyone in government anymore. They are all a bunch of thieves.

Comments

allpolitical2 is really on target...Halifax County is but a small speck in the larger macrocosmic dysfunction and disarray.


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