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Published: Friday, 7/27/2007

Seneca County officials set to talk demolition

County commissioners face opposition to their courthouse demolition plans. County commissioners face opposition to their courthouse demolition plans.

TIFFIN - The trial that could decide the fate of the historic Seneca County courthouse is not yet over, but county commissioners plan to meet Monday with a consultant to discuss costs and a timetable for demolishing the county's 1884 courthouse.

The meeting is scheduled on the same morning attorneys for the commissioners and a group of county residents who want to save the old courthouse will be in Common Pleas Court arguing the commissioners' motion to dismiss some of the claims in the residents' lawsuit.

John Barga, a Tiffin attorney who is representing the courthouse proponents, said yesterday that he was unaware of the meeting on demolition plans.

"It is disappointing to me that they have not been willing to take a second look at their decision," he said. "There's been so much information offered, so much assistance offered, and none of it has been accepted.

"It just seems to me a decision this important - probably the most important that's ever going to be made by a board of county commissioners in this county - needs to be thought out very carefully and needs to have in-put from the private sector and even the public sector so the county can come together and make this a consensus."

Members of the Save Our Courthouse committee set up a display at the Seneca County Fair this week where they have continued to obtain signatures on petitions in support of the old building. Jacqueline Fletcher, a member of the committee and one of the six plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said fairgoers have shown a lot of interest.

"We do see people are asking more questions, which is one of our goals: to get people thinking and asking questions," she said. "We just think people haven't had a chance to think about the courthouse. Now that they do, they're asking, 'What are we doing? Do we really want this courthouse to go away?'•"

County commissioners insist they have enough input and did enough research on the matter, which has been festering for years. They want the building to come down yet this year.

"Unless I am ordered by a legal authority that we're not able to do it, we're going to remove the former courthouse," Commissioner Ben Nutter said. "I think we've given it a lot of due diligence. It's time to move forward."

Still pending is the residents' effort to get a preliminary injunction to stop the demolition. In their complaint filed May 23, they allege commissioners violated open records and open meetings laws and breached their duty to the taxpayers in choosing to raze the courthouse.

Commissioners decided last fall to raze the courthouse, which has been vacant since 2004, and hired Mansfield-based MKC Associates to look at options for replacing it. MKC examined the building and estimated costs to renovate it at just under $9 million and costs to replace it with a similar-sized structure while salvaging significant architectural features at $10.5 million. A plan to save the exterior and gut the interior was pegged at $11.3 million.

Commissioners ultimately rejected all of the options MKC presented in favor of a plan to build a new courthouse about half the size of the old one that would cost, according to Mr. Nutter, under $5.5 million. Estimates to demolish the old courthouse are $500,000 to $700,000, he said.

Mike Bridinger, the only commissioner who favors renovating the old courthouse, said he still has questions about that plan. "I don't think it's ever going to be too late to try" to change his fellow commissioners' minds, he said.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-353-5972.

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