New Courthouse Planned for Oldham County

COURTHOUSE PROJECT

1/21/2020

David Voegele

 

On January 15, 2020, the Project Development Board - the committee charged with building a new courthouse for Oldham County – voted 5-1 to remove all structures from the courthouse square and build a new, two story courthouse to serve the county for the next 100 years. This decision has met with mixed reviews, with some residents in support of building a new courthouse and others upset by a decision made with what they believe was a lack of consideration for the ‘historic value’ of the existing courthouse.

WHAT IS THE BACKGROUND OF THE PROJECT?

Since 1998, the Kentucky Court of Justice has completed, authorized or begun construction on 71 new judicial centers. These new facilities have given Kentucky citizens safe, efficient, cost-effective buildings in which to exercise their legal and constitutional rights. As part of the 2018-2020 Judicial Branch Capital Projects Budget, the General Assembly authorized $22.8 million for renovation or construction of court facilities in Oldham County.

WHAT IS THE AOC?

The Administrative Office of the Courts ("AOC") Division of Facilities is the state agency which oversees the management of court facilities in all of Kentucky’s 120 counties, including Judicial Centers, courthouses, and other property owned or operated by a local unit of government and occupied by the Court of Justice. The Division of Facilities also manages space occupied by the Court of Justice through private sector leases. Approvals for expenditures of funds related to the operation and maintenance of court facilities are processed by the Division of Facilities. The goal of these AOC Policies for the Operation and Maintenance of Court Facilities (“Operation and Maintenance Policies”) is to provide guidance to local units of government in the management of court facilities while ensuring state funds are spent in an efficient manner on necessary repair and operating costs.

In addition to Oldham County, there are judicial centers under various stages of development throughout Kentucky. Documents connected to the Oldham County Judicial Center Project, including expenditure reports, Project Development Board meeting minutes and schedules, photos and other information will be posted on the website of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT DEVELOPMENT BOARD?

By state statute, responsibility for developing a new courthouse is placed on six members of each community who comprise the ‘Project Development Board’ (PDB). Four of the six members are individuals who have been elected to a specific office in the county, as identified in Court of Justice regulations, Part X.  

The four elected positions are Judge-Executive, Circuit Court Judge, Chief District Judge and Clerk of Circuit Court. Two additional members are appointed by the Judge-Executive, a public member and a representative of the Oldham County Bar Association.

PDB members are Judge-Executive David Voegele, Circuit Court Judge Karen Conrad, Chief District Judge Jerry Crosby and Circuit Court Clerk Steve Kaelin, public member Ann Brown (former county clerk) and Barry Baxter, representative of the Oldham County Bar Association.

Some residents have asked if there could be a public vote on which design should be selected. The answer is the law limits consideration to a decision by the Project Development Board and does not permit a referendum.

The project has been reviewed by the Oldham County Historical Society, which endorsed removing the 1874 façade and side walls and building a two-story courthouse. Several members of the LaGrange Historical District, distinct from the Oldham County Historical Society, spoke in opposition to both options during a presentation January 6th to the LaGrange City Council.

At the meeting, the LaGrange City Council did not take a position, but several council members supported asking for a 3rd option to be created. This not possible. There is a cost to this beyond the budgeted amount. Additional options cannot be created until everyone in the community is satisfied. That point will never be reached.  

IS THE ENTIRE OLDHAM COUNTY COURTHOUSE HISTORIC?  

It is likely some residents have a misunderstanding about the history of the courthouse. Possibly because they have driven past the building for what feels like a long time and appreciate what they see, many residents seem to believe the entire courthouse is ‘historic’, but that is not the case. Only the front façade and adjoining side walls and what is behind them remain from the 1874 courthouse. The rear half of the 1874 courthouse was taken down and replaced in the mid-90’s. Everything else, including the copula, is about 25 years old, and not historic.

It might be said the most historic portion of the courthouse is the courthouse property itself. What remains of the 1874 courthouse and the major addition from the mid-90’s, is actually the second courthouse built on the property. The first courthouse built in LaGrange at this location was completed in 1834. It was destroyed by fire in 1873 and replaced in 1874. The original Oldham County courthouse was a log cabin in the Westport area. In 1825, first building purposely built as a courthouse was put up in Westport. It still stands today, used as a Methodist Church.

Of the remaining 1874 courthouse, the only truly remarkable interior features are two banisters which go along a staircase from either side of the first front door to a landing on the second floor courtroom.  Two doors at the top of the staircase for entering the courtroom may also be original. Other features of the interior, while old, are not remarkable.  Exterior features, doors, windows, some brick and possibly other exterior features, while original, are not expected to be used in the new courthouse are available to be salvaged for possible future use.

DOES OLDHAM COUNTY NEED A NEW COURTHOUSE?  

The current courthouse is inadequate and has been for some time. Many residents are also unaware of 21st century judicial requirements and/or the multiple structural, mechanical, space, security problems and possible exposure to ill-health conditions in the building, a serious concern for some employees. A new building will correct deficiencies and bring the county up-to-date.

Of the current 1874 building, only the façade and two side walls remain. During comments at the January 14th   meeting of the Project Development Board, and prior to the vote to build a new courthouse, Chief District Judge Jerry Crosby said the mid-1990’s remodel favored preservation, location and economics over security, function and future expansion.

Judge Crosby cited numerous deficiencies he has encountered over this 19 years of working in the building, including mice, possums, bats, previous issues with mold requiring vacating the building for eradication, floors that continue to sink despite repairs made several years ago, a virtually unfixable boiler system causing extreme difficulties in regulating temperatures and a permeating smell requiring flushing of the second floor bathrooms regularly.  Because of space restrictions at the Main Street entrance, there are no metal detectors in the current building.  Judge Crosby said he recognizes historical value, but the building is no longer functional. He believes it is time to revitalize and rebuild.

In April, the 2020 census will get underway. Oldham County is expected to increase in population significantly during the years ahead. Design for the new courthouse is based on AOC experience, as well as projections regarding what will be needed to serve the county in the coming decades.

Courthouses are built very infrequently. Like it or not, the AOC’s vision for future needs of the judicial system is based on the next 100 years. Non-informed opinion to the contrary, the existing courthouse cannot be retrofitted and/or enlarged to include all of the components required in a new courthouse.

At the present time, security is impossible at the front door. The new courthouse will include a front entrance security system. All visitors entering the building will pass through metal detection. Various other components and functions are listed here.

  • Four courtrooms
  • Litigation and Spectator areas
  • Public Entrance Area Waiting Rooms
  • Jury Rooms
  • Male and Female Restrooms
  • Witness/Victim Rooms
  • Attorney/Client Rooms
  • Prisoner Interview Rooms
  • Prisoner Holding Cells
  • Prisoner Elevator
  • Evidence Storage Area
  • Audio/Visual Storage area
  • Grand Jury Area
  • Judge's Offices
  • Law Clerk Area
  • Secure Judicial Elevators and Lobby
     
  • Public Elevator
  • Family Court Administrator
  • Social Worker Area
  • Child Waiting  Area
  • Observation Room
  • Law Library
  • Circuit Court Area for Staff and Public
  • Driver's License Office
  • Pre-Trial Staff and  Conference Rooms
  • Court Designated Worker Staff Area
  • Drug Court Area
  • Security Monitoring/Bailiff Area
  • Support Areas for Mechanical/ Electrical/Telecom
     
  • Secure Parking for Judges outside the building
     
  • Handicapped entry

 

The courthouse will be limited to state government functions and personnel only. County offices, including the Judge-Executive and staff, county attorney, county clerk, sheriff, Planning and Development, Inspections Department, and county engineer and Environmental Services will continue to be housed in the Fiscal Court Building.

WHY WAS THE TWO STORY DESIGN SELECTED?

From the beginning, PDB objectives have included 1) keeping the historical façade and side walls, if possible, 2) not undermining the viability of Downtown LaGrange, 3) preserving on the courthouse block as much green space as possible, 4) requiring renovation or new construction to reflect the historical appearance of the existing courthouse. While maintaining the façade and side walls has turned out to be impossible, the PDB believes the goals have been met.

Initial designs were presented to the PDB in July and August, and later rejected. At a subsequent meeting on September 19th, a number of community residents were present to comment, including the Mayor John Black and History Center Director Nancy Theiss.  At that meeting, SCB was asked to continue refining design options to come up with alternatives which mirrored as much as possible the architecture of the current courthouse. They returned again December 10th with two options.

Details of these options, as well as news about all previous meetings of the Project Development Board have appeared in numerous issues of the Oldham Era. This material can be found on-line at the Oldham Era website.  

 After closely reviewing options for a two or three story building, the two story design was selected primarily for because it is much more in keeping with the height of the other buildings in the downtown area, had better placement for transferring prisoners in and out of the building, requires 4000 gross square feet less in space and is expected to be lower in cost than a three story building and because it permits a larger amount of secure parking along Jefferson Street and consequently greater flexibility along Second Street for community events. The two story building is also able to be moved away from First Street and centered in the middle of the block.  

Judicial requirements for renovation and expansion of the 1874 façade and side walls led to a three story configuration 52’ tall structure, with wings towering over First and Jefferson, the History Center and everything else in Downtown LaGrange, other than the steeple of the former Methodist Church Building at 68’ and the addition at the rear of the Fiscal Court Building, which is approximately 60’ tall. This circumstance would hardly blend into our historic downtown.   

A suggestion has been made the LaGrange City Council limit traffic on Second Street to one way south and that a portion of the street between the Oldham County History Center and the courthouse be repaved with brick in order to create a visual connection between the courthouse and History Center. With the significant upgrade to the History Center over the past two years, more community events are extending from the courthouse square to the History Center.

CAN A NEW COURTHOUSE BE BUILT OUTSIDE LAGRANGE?

Suggestions about where to build a new courthouse other than in Downtown LaGrange have been many. Some have suggested next to the Oldham County Detention Center, others have stated put the project in Oldham Reserve, Commerce Parkway or in Buckner.

While well-intended, these ideas discount the historic value of keeping the courthouse in a location where is has been for nearly 200 years. This idea also runs the huge risk of turning LaGrange into a ‘ghost town’ by drawing business activity away from the traditional downtown business district. If the courthouse moves out of the center of the community, many of the legal services and ancillary activity connected to the courthouse will follow the courthouse and vanish from the downtown area. Other services used in connection with the courthouse, including the County Clerk, Sheriff’s office, PVA, Commonwealth Attorney’s office, Master Commissioner’s Office, will remain where they area – creating a great deal of inconvenience for those who would otherwise benefit from close proximity.

There is only one chance to get this right. Other communities which have built courthouses outside their downtown areas have regretted it.

WHY IS A TEMPORARY COURTHOUSE BEING CONSTRUCTED IN CRESTWOOD?  

Neither the Project Development Board, nor the Judge-Executive chose the location for a temporary courthouse. The Administrative Office of the Courts was approached by the City of Crestwood after Crestwood purchased the former IGA building in Crestwood. Although LaGrange did not have a building available large enough to accommodate all court functions, consideration was given to splitting court functions between two buildings in LaGrange. That choice was declined in favor of using a single building, the IGA building in Crestwood. The cost for remodeling the IGA building is being split by AOC and the City of Crestwood. 

WILL THE NEW COURTHOUSE INCLUDE ARTIFACTS FROM THE EXISTING COURTHOUSE?  

The Project Development Board is not putting aside Oldham County history. The Board will work with the Oldham County Historical Society to create a presentation inside the new courthouse which recognizes and celebrates the county’s historical past and includes artifacts from the existing courthouse which can be appropriately displayed. The History Center may also consider other options, including an outside display of the courthouse porch and front doors and possibly more. Ways will be explored to re-purpose any plausible materials inside the courthouse.   

WHAT IS THE SCHEDULE FOR COMPLETION?

It is anticipated the temporary courthouse in Crestwood will be complete by fall. After staff is moved from the current courthouse, demolition will begin. Prior to demolition, historical artifacts to be saved will be removed. Construction on the new courthouse is expected to take 18 months, with completion slated for the fall of 2022. 

Events that normally take place each year on the courthouse grounds should be able to continue until fall of this year. 

HENRY COUNTY IS REMODELING AND PUTTING AN ADDITION ON ITS COURTHOUSE. WHY CAN’T OLDHAM COUNTY DO THIS? 

In 2014 the Kentucky General Assembly approved funding for the development of a judicial center in Henry County containing approximately 37,500 gross square feet, with 100% court occupancy. The total estimated preliminary project cost is $12,225,000.

Because Oldham is the largest county in the area judicial district, the two-story Oldham County Courthouse will be 52,000 gross square feet - much larger than the court facility in Henry County.

The proposed three story option is 56,000 gross square feet, with no additional office space beyond what is able to be housed in the two story addition. The additional space in the three story addition, precipitated by retaining the 1874 facade and two side walls, was necessary to create different circulation paths for judges, prisoners, juries and the public.

WHO ARE THE PROFESSIONALS ASSISTING WITH THE PROJECT?  

Lexington architects Sherman, Carter and Barnhardt were chosen from eleven applicants. The firm has designed many courthouses in Kentucky.

Wehr Constructors of Louisville has been chosen as the Project Manager and Hilliard Lyons was selected to assist with financing. A construction firm will be determined from bidding later this year.