The courthouse: Not too late to ‘get it right’

Published 1:40 pm Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Five years ago we hoped that Charlotte County would make history. We would show how a rural county can provide updated court facilities while protecting our historic Courthouse Square.  

Instead, Charlotte County will make history as a cautionary tale — a case study of what can go wrong.

As architectural historians and historic preservation professionals review plans for an addition to the circuit court clerk’s office, they are astonished and saddened. (Note: See letter from Richard Wilson of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, Carl Lounsbury of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and 12 co-signers).

They — as well as many local citizens — ask, “How could Charlotte County get it so wrong?” Indeed, how could we spend four years and $1.2 million for plans that not only fail to respect a nationally significant historic site but also fail to offer a convenient way for people to get from the parking lot to the main entrance?

Through review of documents and e-mails, many obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, we conclude that a far from ideal planning process produced this inappropriate plan.  Our supervisors made five choices that defined this planning process. 

First, the public should have a say in the location and design of a public building.

We needed — but never had — an open exchange of information on two key topics: a) why the courts need additional space and the specific requirements for that space; and b) why the Charlotte County Courthouse Square is a nationally significant historic site and the guidelines we should follow to protect it. On both topics, the public needed to hear from experts and the experts needed to hear from the public.   

Second, the Virginia Courthouse Facility Guidelines (Second Edition) suggest a initial planning group that includes the judges, clerks, commonwealth’s attorney, sheriff, members of the local bar and members of the public as well as local government representatives. A smaller working committee, drawn from this larger group, remains active throughout the design process. Instead, Charlotte County’s “committee” consisted of two Supervisors and the county administrator. Over four years, they met with architects and on occasion with judges. This committee made little effort to inform or interact with court system employees, such as the clerks, or the public.

Third, the supervisors failed to honor a Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Historic Resources (DHR). 

In 2012 DHR contributed $15,000 and the county agreed the agency were serve as a consultant.

DHR was involved in early discussions but rarely contacted after 2013.

When plans for the clerk’s office addition were presented in March 2015, citizens asked the county to send them to DHR for review. The county refused to send the plans for nine months. After the county sent the plans in mid-December 2015, DHR responded promptly but the supervisors ignored the DHR Director’s recommendations.

Fourth, the new Courts facility will impact the Town of Charlotte Court House in many ways, but supervisors did not include the council in discussions.

After the council adopted a unanimous resolution opposing the March 2015 plans, no one from the county met with the council to discuss their concerns.

Later, the supervisors directed the county attorney to send a letter stating the town has no say in the matter.

Fifth, the supervisors declined to follow up on suggestions and offers of pro bono assistance, submitted between August 2014 and December 2014, by architectural historians, Preservation Virginia, the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In their 5/6/2016 letter, Richard Wilson, Carl Lounsbury and the 12 co-signers offer Charlotte County an extraordinary opportunity.

If the supervisors will convene all interested parties, they will organize a presentation to explain why the Charlotte County Courthouse Square is a nationally significant historic site; how the proposed addition will harm it; and how the negative impact could be minimized.

Before the county spends $12 million (perhaps considerably more) on construction, let’s make a good faith effort to do what Wilson, Lounsbury, the Department of Historic Resources, the Charlotte Court House Town Council and many local citizens have advocated since 2014; develop plans for a separate free-standing building located about 50-75 feet further east. 

To date, the county has refused to instruct the architects to prepare plans for a separate building. 

Therefore, no one can blame the individuals and groups that have requested a free-standing, separate building — since 2014 — for plan changes over the past 15 months that have increased architectural fees beyond earlier estimates and agreements. 

P.K Pettus is a guest columnist from Keysville. She can be reached at