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Published: Sunday, 7/8/2007

Defiance County voted no on courthouse demolition

Commissioners had settled on a plan to raze the 130-year-old Defiance County Courthouse and build a larger facility. Commissioners had settled on a plan to raze the 130-year-old Defiance County Courthouse and build a larger facility.

DEFIANCE - Last November, the fate of the Defiance County Courthouse was in the people's hands.

The 130-year-old building was too small for the county's needs, and commissioners had settled on a plan to raze it and build in its place a much larger facility to accommodate the courts and other county offices. They asked voters to approve a two-tier sales tax intended to raise about $13 million for the project.

It was soundly defeated - much to the delight of local historic preservationists who had campaigned against the tax.

"People spoke out loud and clear, very loud and clear in this county," said Emilie Lenhart, a member of the Historic Homes group that worked to save the courthouse.

County Commissioner Otto Nicely said he's more inclined to believe the election result was more of a vote against new taxes than a vote in favor of keeping the old courthouse, which he said has no historic value left.

"They tore out the woodwork and the marble and the faade in the 1950s and added a third floor," he said.

Ms. Lenhart said the tax request - 0.5 percent in the county's sales tax the first four years and 0.25 percent for the next four - was really quite modest. She said she's convinced people were sending a message: Let's save what we've got left of our old buildings.

"Our point was we're coming back to fill the heart of old Defiance," she said. "We saved the library and the courthouse and some beautiful homes. This is a symbol of what has endured, and that, to a large group of people, is important in the city. It showed that in the vote."

County Commissioner Tom Kime said his feelings on preserving a piece of county history were not a factor in recommending a new courthouse.

"It doesn't matter what I feel," he said. "It boils down to numbers and what the public wants."

When he looks at Seneca County, where commissioners have decided to demolish their old courthouse, he said he at least sees a courthouse that has some architectural integrity on the outside. Defiance County, on the other hand, tore off the original roof and built a third floor with brick and windows that don't match the first two floors. The marble and carved woodwork that once adorned the inside were removed during a 1950s renovation.

Ms. Lenhart agrees the interior is "not fabulous," but she and other members of the Historic Homes group have a dream of raising enough money to restore the faade, a project that could cost in the area of $1 million.

"It would look like it looked in 1872," she said.

The commissioners for their part say they have no intention of abandoning the old courthouse. They are looking at plans to renovate or expand other county buildings so that some offices can be moved out of the cramped courthouse. They also are getting estimates to install a new elevator at the courthouse and annex building.

"Our No. 1 problem is lack of space. Our second is safety and [Americans with Disabilities Act] regulations, and we're attempting to solve those problems," Mr. Kime said.

Mr. Nicely said the county wouldn't be back on the ballot with a new proposal.

"We understand what no means," he said.

- Jennifer Feehan

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