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TIFFIN - Doug Collar yesterday asked Seneca County commissioners to think outside the box: to consider an option other than tearing down the 1884 courthouse or renovating it for the courts.
"Imagine if it were possible, two simultaneous projects, a brand new courthouse with all the innovation and security" the courts need, he said, along with a privately funded restoration and rehabilitation of the 1884 courthouse.
Mr. Collar made the proposal during the first round of negotiations between commissioners and Tiffin's Architectural Board of Review, of which he is a member. By the end of the 90-minute meeting, commissioners agreed to remain open to the possibility of a third option for the courthouse.
Franklin Conaway, a preservation consultant invited to the meeting by the review board, offered to put together a report outlining "what the real alternatives are and what the real alternatives aren't" for the courthouse. Commissioners asked him to submit a proposal outlining what he could do and how much his report would cost by their next meeting on Thursday.
Commissioners and the review board also agreed to continue their talks July 7.
Courthouse proponents in attendance took that as a good sign.
"I'm excited," said Jackie Fletcher, a member of the Tiffin Historic Trust. "There's some interaction. The response was positive from the commissioners."
Commissioner Ben Nutter said afterward he thought the conversation was productive. Whether commissioners will hire Mr. Conaway to look seriously at another option for the courthouse while they are accepting bids to demolish it has yet to be seen.
"We have to cipher out what's really achievable and what's going to result in costly delays," Mr. Nutter said afterward.
The meeting with the review board was scheduled after the board on June 10 denied the county's application for a certificate of appropriateness to raze the downtown courthouse. The board voted 5-0 to reject the demolition proposal, saying it was inconsistent with a city ordinance that seeks to preserve Tiffin's historic buildings.
Commissioners said their desire to tear down the old courthouse and replace it was based on limited finances and a need to have functional space and security for the courts.
"Our juvenile-probate court is operating in a building a third of the size that they require," Mr. Nutter said. "They are not ADA compliant nor do they meet any of the Supreme Court security issues they should have in place."
Dr. Robert Yager, chairman of the review board, said the city ordinance that governs the review board does not talk about financial considerations but only says "thou shalt" not change the architectural, cultural, or historical appearance of the review district. He said he believed one couldn't avoid the financial considerations and asked whether the county had exhausted all its options for funding renovation of the old courthouse.
Mr. Sauber and Mr. Nutter said they believed they had.
Still, all three said they wanted to hear more about the idea of building a new courthouse on the site of the former East Junior High School if a private developer could be found to rehabilitate the old courthouse.
"I can't dismiss it out of hand," Mr. Nutter told the board. "I'd like to say, 'Sure. It sounds good.' We build a $5 million courthouse and some private entity does a $10 [million] or $12 million restoration of [the 1884 courthouse], but I'm cautiously optimistic. I don't know how or where that would work."
Mr. Sauber said though he personally thought it was a great idea, as a commissioner he was concerned about fragmenting county offices, which already are spread among numerous locations.
At the beginning of the meeting, Seneca County Prosecutor Ken Egbert, Jr., asked that Mr. Collar recuse himself - or that the review board vote on whether Mr. Collar should be permitted to remain a part of the process - because Mr. Collar was one of six county residents who sued commissioners last year over the courthouse issue. Mr. Egbert said it was vital that the commissioners receive "fair and impartial" consideration.
City Law Director Brent Howard said it would be up to Mr. Collar to recuse himself if he felt he had a personal or financial interest in the courthouse question. Mr. Collar, who is on the board as a representative of the Tiffin Historic Trust, declined to do so.
"My position from the beginning going back 10 years is I think the courthouse should be preserved but I have no resistance to new construction if it does not mean demolition of the 1884 courthouse," he said. "I'm here to find common ground and move ahead in a productive manner."
- Jennifer Feehan