Early History of the Courthouse
As soon as Transylvania County was established in 1861, a courthouse was needed. This effort was delayed until 1866, the end of the Civil War, when a two-story frame courthouse was finished. Soon after, in 1874, the Board of County Commissioners approved $12,000 to construct a stately and impressive brick courthouse for the county seat, which still stands and operates today. Notably, it was the first brick building in Brevard, which demonstrated the county’s growth.
The Courthouse was used as a meeting hub, voting center, and place to debate the law. In 1921, an $80,000 jail was added to the rear. During that same year, the interior was remodeled for around $50,000. Improvements included steam heating, finished oak interiors, and a sizable courtroom. Local historian Marcy Thompson says, “As early as 1911 there was talk of a town clock in the tower. Money was raised by showing moving picture shows at the courthouse throughout the summer. Admission was 5¢ and 10¢. Little is known of this undertaking, but the clocks were not installed until 1984.”
The Transylvania County Courthouse continues its operation today as a courthouse and the Clerk of Court. In 1979, it was recognized for its local historical significance and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Transylvania County conducts a facility space needs survey that indicates existing square footage availability in the Transylvania County Courthouse does not meet the square footage needs of courtrooms, security or the Clerk of Court, District Attorney and Public Defender functions in the courthouse.
Importantly, the study found that while Transylvania County is experiencing modest population increases, the increases in court filings occurring contemporaneously are increasing at a much faster rate meaning there will be increased workload for judicial system employees in the courthouse and further need for staff as time progresses.
At two closed sessions of the Board of County Commissioners (6/13/2005 and 6/27/2005), staff instructed to search for property that met the needs of Transylvania County's plans for a Public Safety Facility to house the county's emergency management functions, jail and sheriff's office identified a 19.58 acre parcel on Morris Road. They also determined a 5.12 acre adjoining parcel would be available as well as a future expansion site.
At two closed sessions of the Board of County Commissioners, (7/11/2005 and 7/25/2005) continue to negotiate with property owners regarding the potential use of the property. They also determine at the time that this might be a potential future site for a courthouse, should it become necessary to move the judicial functions out of downtown Brevard.
After receiving approval from the City of Brevard to proceed with the construction of a Public Safety Facility on Morris Road, the Board of County Commissioners purchase a 19.58 acre tract of land from Robert Morris, Virginia H. Morris, Virginia E. Morris and William C. Morris Jr as well as a 5.141 acre tract from Jack Eubanks at their August 8th, 2005 meeting. The total price of the land acquisition is $2,225,000.
At Planning Workshops for the 2006-2007 Transylvania County Budget, Commissioners discuss forming an interim plan to delay major courthouse renovations by 10 to 15 years. As a part of that plan, staff were instructed to begin identifying opportunities for renovations of currently owned county facilities to provide temporary relief of space challenges at the courthouse.
The North Carolina Rural Courts Commission conducted an inspection of Transylvania County’s court system and courthouse building and issued a report that found several deficiencies that needed addressing. They determined that there were issues related to lack of available square footage for workspace and record storage for both Judicial and County offices located in the Courthouse, issues related to accessibility for individuals with disabilities and security concerns with regard to comingling of jurors, judicial staff, witnesses, victims, defendants and other parties.
The Commission’s ultimate recommendation was the construction of a new separate courthouse facility. Their conclusion was that the current structure had served the people of Transylvania County well over the decades, but that it would be more efficient and economical to construct a new facility rather than continue to retrofit the current structure.
Transylvania County government resolved to study the issue further and begin to implementing some of their recommendations. One example of change made during this period was the creation of a single entry point for the courthouse and the closure of the main street entrance. No architectural study of the Courthouse since this period has been able to identify how the main street entrance of the Courthouse could ever be reopened while the historic Courthouse remains a judicial facility.
Two citizen-led committees established by the Board of County Commissioners report their findings to the board. Committee A studied the impact of moving courthouse functions out of downtown Brevard. Committee B studied the costs and facility needs of construction of new or expanded courthouse facilities with the assistance of Moseley Architects.
Committee A conducted several surveys and public hearings concerning possible relocation of court functions out of downtown Brevard. The members of this committee made up a cross section of the community, consisting of professionals, various Courthouse users, members of the business community and the general public. Their surveys and focus groups found a mixed result, which most respondents indicating they would not be concerned
Committee B made a unanimous recommendation that a new courthouse be constructed adjacent to the Public Safety Facility on Morris Road, which was then under construction. They determined at the time that expanding the current site location would be more expensive than a relocation project as well as would be more logistically difficult.
The Transylvania County Board of County Commissioners instructs staff to revisit courthouse space needs in light of economic situation and continuing construction at the Public Safety Facility. One potential option for alleviating courthouse facility needs at this time was the separation of the civil and criminal court functions, but both judicial branch of North Carolina and law enforcement and legal communities indicated this would be inefficient and lead to increased staffing requirements and operational costs that would require tax funds to support. As a result, the separation of civil and criminal courts was set aside and staff were instructed to continue the current courthouse structure.
The Transylvania County Board of County Commissioners holds a special meeting to discuss the long and short term needs of the Transylvania County Courthouse. They reviewed short term solutions such as the conversion of the County Administration building into a courtroom, the separation of the civil and criminal court sections, as well expansion of the current historic courthouse in downtown Brevard versus an off-site Morris Road replacement courthouse. They also heard from twenty stakeholders and members of the public. At the end of the meeting, they instructed staff to continue researching the issue and to prepare in future budgets a concrete plan for addressing the Courthouse.
Continuing to address the needs outlined in the studies conducted by the Courthouse Committees, the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners approve a plan to renovate the former Sheriff’s Office Building in downtown Brevard as a new home for the Register of Deeds and Tax Administrator’s Office. The departure of these County functions leave only judicial functions and employees of the North Carolina judicial system at the Transylvania County Courthouse. The Board of County Commissioners authorized this project with a budget of $344,050.
With the Register of Deeds office and the Tax Administration offices relocated away from the historic courthouse, the Transylvania County Board of County Commissioners approve renovations the courthouse to restructure the facility. This increases available space for the District Attorney, Clerk of Court and create space for the Public Defender’s Office in the Courthouse as an interim solution to provide some relief for identified needs. The Board of County Commissioners authorized the project with a budget of $218,703. This does not address all of the public safety and ADA needs previously identified.
The Transylvania County Board of County Commissioners approve a plan to renovate the old County Library at 101 South Broad Street as a new location for the County Administration department offices. This allows the possibility of the conversion of the former County Administration building in an expansion of the Courthouse as necessary, which earlier studies identified as a medium-term solution to the ongoing challenges. The Board of County Commissioners authorize a total renovation and relocation project at a budget of $1,584,064 and instruct staff to continue studying the issue at the courthouse.
The Board of County Commissioners hears the results of a study commissioned from Moseley Architects conducted during 2013 organized around expanding the Courthouse location in downtown Brevard. It concludes that it keeps the current historic court location but at a cost of only meeting the next 15 years of needs, does not improve on existing parking needs, will have significantly reduce the historic look of the existing courthouse. The study also determines that it is possible there are latent issues in the historic structure that could be revealed in the event of an expansion project that would need to be addressed.
The Board of County Commissioners revisits the topic of courthouse renovation and expansion at two workshops during their September Meetings. (September 8th, 2014 and September 22nd, 2014) At this meeting, Commissioners reflected on the ongoing plan to relocate county services out of the Courthouse and renovate/restructure the courthouse as that process has gone on. They discussed ongoing issues with the 2013 study, which did not appropriately address parking needs in downtown Brevard and at an expanded downtown Courthouse facility. There was a consensus that any courthouse expansion would only house judicial functions and the need for a plan for what would happen to the historic Courthouse if a move away from downtown Brevard. A key point discussed was the need for planning for a long-term solution. They adjourned to discuss this at an October 2014 meeting.
The Board of County Commissioners held a followup workshop to the July and September workshops where they again discussed the two options identified in the 2013 study: a demolition of the County Administration facility and expansion of the historic Courthouse building and a separate Morris Road location for a new Courthouse. There was ongoing concern about expanding the existing Courthouse facility as it may not be a long-term solution that solved the parking issues, space need issues as well as ongoing security needs. In the interest of pursuing a new set of solutions to the courthouse question, the Board of County Commissioners voted in favor of pursuing an updated study of locating a new Courthouse at the Public Safety Facility.
At the request of Transylvania County, Dean & Associates, Inc conducts an engineering study after a slab of concrete falls over the Jury Room. Focusing only on the jury room and Civil Division Offices, the study determined that there was significant bending stress of the existing steel beams inside the structure due to age. It recommended discontinuing use of several rooms in the courthouse and noted that it was possible there were other structural issues in the courthouse not addressed by their limited study.
The Board of County Commissioners contracts with Moseley Architects to conduct a third space study in October 2014, and they complete their study in April 2015. After stakeholder interviews and surveys, they identify 60,800 square feet of needs. They determine the advantages of constructing a new facility eliminate existing issues regarding movement of prisoners and judges, eliminate the need for further expansion for years to come and allow for repurposing of current courthouse consistent with its historic structure.
This study concluded that it would be possible to keep the courthouse in downtown Brevard but that that expansion on the Main Street site would involve substantial changes to the existing structure and preclude the preservation of the historic structure. There is also no solution in the downtown proposal that eliminates the parking issues and also that if this new renovated historic Courthouse facility needed further expansion, it would not be feasible to do so onsite in downtown Brevard. For example, this study identified that large land acquisitions necessary to construct a parking deck would reduce the amount of available land necessary to expand the courthouse facility if that became necessary in the future.
In response to the Dean & Associates, Inc study completed in April 2015, the Board of County Commissioners debate and approve a project with a budget of $49,450 to address some of the structural issues identified in the March 2015 architectural study. This alleviates issues discovered after prior structural issues within the Courthouse occurred and they required further study. This allows the continued use of the Criminal Division, Civil Division, Law Library, Judges Chambers and Jury Room which had been previously evacuated due to the issues studied in March 2015.
Resident Superior Court Judge for Transylvania County Mark E. Powell writes a letter to the county commissioners urging them strongly to take action, noting that in other courthouses he has served in the atmosphere and structure of the court has done a great deal for creating more positive outcomes.
Transylvania County Sheriff's Office, in an attempt to alleviate some security issues, hosts a representative from the U.S. Marshalls Service. The U.S. Marshall representative identifies several deficiencies in the existing security infrastructure at the courthouse and provides some recommendations to alleviate ongoing issues.
The Board of County Commissioners follows up on the 2015 Moseley Architects hearing by reviewing the study completed earlier in the year and discussing the three options identified by the study. During the 2015 architectural study, during the interview with stakeholders it was determined that it was unlikely that the County would be able to purchase properties adjacent to the courthouse in downtown Brevard, as property holders were only interested in long term leases. The architectural study also concluded in the discussion of options that it would not be possible to bring the historic courthouse structure up to current standards – whatever inefficiencies existed in the current structure would remain unless the courthouse was completely demolished and rebuilt.
The Board of County Commissioners discuss a proposal from Brevard College to jointly fund a master plan for facilities on college owned property located between the current courthouse and the current Transylvania County Courthouse at two meetings. (January 11th, 2016 and February 1st, 2016.) Commissioners choose not to financially support this plan, citing concerns about sharing public space with private organizations, the lack of inclusion of economic development agencies and that the property owners had not engaged previously regarding Courthouse land acquisition for the expansion of parking options at the Transylvania County Courthouse with a parking deck.
The Board of County Commissioners again review options and studies of courthouse issues from prior years, revisiting the results of the 2008, 2013, and 2015 studies and resolve to make a decision in November 2017.
On October 27th, 2017, Resident Superior Court Judge Mark Powell again writes to the Board of County Commissioners and again offers his thoughts on court operations in downtown Brevard.
The Board of County Commissioners unanimously selects option #4, to construct a new 2-story courthouse at the county-owned parcel on Morris Road, adjacent to the Public Safety Facility with a 3rd story shell to provide for future growth.
At the January 22nd, 2018 meeting of the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners, the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to authorize staff to pursue a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program to finance the construction costs for the new Courthouse Facility. The amount borrowed for this loan would be approximately $31,000,000 based on current cost projections for the construction of a new facility, with $1.45 million annual payments over the life of the loan. Given the significantly higher tax impact under an installment purchasing contract and the flexibility provided by having a low annual payment, the Board chose to instruct staff to pursue a USDA loan with a forty year term and a 3.5% interest rate to finance the courthouse project. The potential impact on the County tax rate to meet the payments on a USDA loan would be a $0.0254 (two and a half cent) increase.
At the March 13th, 2018 meeting of the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners, the Board reviewed the qualifications of five architectural firms. After receiving a report from a selection committee comprised of staff that reported favorably on the qualifications of Moseley Architects, and the Board unanimously chose to continue the process with having Moseley Architects design the new courthouse building on the Morris road land parcels purchased in 2005.
At the same meeting, the Board also authorized staff to contract with Thomas, Judy and Tucker to prepare the financial feasibility report necessary to apply for a USDA loan to finance the cost of the new construction.. At this meeting, it was discussed why there was no referendum on the Courthouse decision - local government units referenda are only allowed under North Carolina law in very specific types of circumstances. Transylvania County does not have any special authority in the laws of North Carolina to ask its citizens to weigh in on the location of court functions, the only way it could ask that question would be to ask citizens whether or not to support borrowing via general obligation bonds, which would require a higher tax increase than required under a USDA loan.
At the March 26th, 2018 meeting of the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners, the Board discussed a court order that had been received by the Graham County Board of Commissioners. Judges in Graham County had determined that the Graham County Courthouse was inadequate to meet the needs to administer a fair and efficient administration of justice in that community, and issued an order forcing the County to appropriate the money necessary to transport jurors and defendants to Cherokee County to utilize the courthouse in Murphy as well as county staff, such as bailiffs, necessary to supplement existing staff at the Cherokee County Courthouse.
At the April 23rd, 2018 meeting of the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners, the Board approved a contract with Wilson Services for $175,000 to make critical repairs to the courthouse cupola. They also moved to approve a contract fee with Moseley Architects for $2,236,400 for the design and full scope of construction documents necessary for the new courthouse project. This fee is fixed at 7.5% of the total cost of the budget for the project.
At their FY2019 Budget Workshop, the Board of County Commissioners reached a consensus implementing the tax increase necessary to fund the USDA Rural Development loan. They requested staff include in the FY2019 budget a 2.5 cent tax increase, with 2.15 cents set aside to make the annual loan payments and the remaining .35 cents to be set aside for the purposes of revitalizing and preparing the current historic courthouse for its next use.
At their June 25th, 2018 meeting, the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners voted to suspend further work on the courthouse project until further notice.