Fixing decaying county buildings will cost millions
Supervisors begin discussions on renovating government offices Courthouse ‘a lovely building,’ but it lacks security, accessibility
The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors layed out potential next steps for restoring county government buildings in the Town of Washington on Friday in a joint meeting with the Buildings Committee.
Members of the county Buildings Committee presented the Board of Supervisors with photos and details of buildings in the town in need of serious repair, including the courthouse, Rappahannock Association for Arts and Community Theater, Court Clerk’s o ce, old jailhouse, the Commissioner of Revenue, the Treasurer's o ce, the Commonwealth Attorney’s o ce and the old county administration building. There are also concerns about access to public meet
ings for people with disabilities.
On Friday, the Board discussed various options for renovating the courthouse and other buildings surrounding it, but will schedule a public hearing before moving forward on any concrete plans or timeline.
County bodies, including the Board of Supervisors, have been using the courthouse as their meeting space and could be barred from holding public meetings in the space by a judge at any point because of safety and security concerns.
The Buildings Committee told the Board that the courthouse and jailhouse have about one year left of remaining service life, and the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office has about two to four years.
Rappahannock County hired Alexandria-based company Wiley-Wilson in 2019 to survey the conditions of county buildings in the Town of Washington. Most of the buildings surveyed, according to the report that was released February 2020, are more than 130 years old and have “many compromised or antiquated building systems.”
The 2020 report found multiple “issues of dire concern for life safety and/ or security that are recommended for immediate review and remedy.” Those include:
▶ Old Church (RAAC Theater) – Lack of a second exit from the assembly area
▶ Courtroom – Lack of a second accessible exit
▶ Most buildings – Lack of fire alarms, fire extinguishers, or other forms of fire protection
▶ Courthouse – Lack of separation between Accuser/ Accused, Judge, jury, civil servants, witnesses, and general public
▶ Combined Court Clerk’s Office – Lack of security at building entry during office hours, and lack of separation/protection at reception from potentially violent visitors
▶ Social Services (leased space) – Lack of security at entry and lack of separation/ protection at reception from potentially violent visitors
▶ Work Shed – Lack of separation of hazardous materials and fumes from office use in an enclosed space
The report also highlighted other “pressing issues” that are not linked to life or safety, including signs of water infiltration abound in spalling, chipping and bubbling finishes across a number of buildings both on their interiors and exteriors, roof replacements and HVAC renovations.
Board members said a potential starting point for making repairs on government buildings in the town could be the old jailhouse on Porter Street, which is currently being used for storage, processing and fingerprinting. There are structural concerns with the brick and mortar, and according to the report, much of the face brick is open and pulling water into the building .
he jailhouse also has a “severely deteriorated chimney structure,” poorly installed roof metal and a dysfunctional gutter system.
Jackson Supervisor Ron Frazier, who also serves on the buildings committee, said starting with the jailhouse gives the Board of Supervisors the ability “to get their feet wet” and see how many contractors would be interested in working with the county on renovations.
Buildings committee member Dale Waters said he estimates it would take about six months to a year to completely renovate the buildings with a full crew, not including the time it would take to plan and depending on the size of the crew.
The planning period for building design and architectural concepts could take about a year, including the time it would take to hold public hearings and finalize cost caps.
The buildings committee had some estimated cost amounts for building renovations. A new courthouse could cost anywhere between $6 million and $8 million, and repairs in other county buildings could be around $2 million total. Members of both committees said they won’t have a clear idea of what the total cost would be until they actually begin construction and start seriously looking at what’s beneath the structure of the buildings.
“This project will have a healthy potential for cost growth once you get started,” said buildings committee member Page Glennie.
A new courthouse?
County Administrator Garrey Curry said it is atypical for county committees to utilize a courthouse as a public meeting space, and that having public meetings in an active courtroom is not a good plan moving forward.
Other members, like Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith, said the current courthouse isn’t even structurally conducive to holding court. When people enter the courthouse, there is only one space for attorneys, defendants, witnesses and members of the public to stand, and everyone must walk up the same staircase to enter the courtroom. There are also saftety concerns with the distance between defendants and the judge in the courtroom.
“It’s a lovely building, but it just simply doesn't have the functionality required for a modern courthouse,” Smith said, adding that it might be more feasible to convert the current courthouse into an administrative space.
There are several concepts created by Wiley-Wilson of what a new courthouse and its surrounding campus could look like, including a change in the orientation of the building and adding additional exits and entrances. Those concepts can be found on BoardDocs, the website where the county shares meeting agenda and minutes.
At January’s Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, Chair Ron Makela, a former Virginia Beach fire chief, raised concerns about the safety of holding meetings in the courthouse, which he said also lacked accessibility features. The body ultimately decided to continue holding meetings in the courthouse.
Members of both committees emphasized the desire for public input when it comes to renovating the building.
“Everybody I've talked to wants to maintain the look and feel of our buildings,” Wakefield Supervisor Debbie Donehey said. “They're not looking for a brand new fancy building that stands out, so anything we can do to fix the buildings we have … [and] make sure it looks and feels the same, at least on the outside.”
The Board of Supervisors did not give a date of when a public hearing might take place, but said moving forward, they will want public consideration on things like a new campus concept, community gathering spaces and general look and feel.