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Published: 7/8/2008

Board opts not to vote on request to demolish Seneca courthouse

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Sauber Sauber
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TIFFIN - People hoping to save Seneca County's courthouse received some good news yesterday.

The Tiffin Architectural Board of Review declined to reconsider a proposal to tear down the 1884 courthouse.

David Sauber, president of the board of commissioners, repeatedly asked the review board to "re-vote" on the county's application for a certificate of appropriateness to demolish the downtown landmark, saying commissioners had explored every possible option for the building. The review board rejected the county's application by a 5-0 vote on June 10.

"We've been dealing with this for the last four years. I believe we've done everything in our power to try to address the courthouse in a way that would please everyone," Mr. Sauber said, explaining that voters had rejected a bond issue to renovate the courthouse, that Gov. Strickland had offered $2 million in state help, and commissioners even signed a resolution saying they would not collect the tax if it was approved. "I ask you, Mr. Chairman, for a revote on our application."

None of the four board members present chose to ask for a new vote but instead scheduled a third meeting with commissioners to discuss alternatives to demolition. That meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. July 17.

"I feel we're at the beginning of the process, not the end of it, and I think to prematurely cut off our discussions would be a disservice to the ordinance and to this crucial issue," said board member Doug Collar. "I don't think we've explored all our options."

Mr. Collar, who was one of six county residents who sued commissioners last year to halt demolition of the courthouse, once again suggested the two sides avail themselves of the services of Chillicothe, Ohio, preservation consultant Franklin Conaway. He has offered to examine the courthouse to determine whether alternative uses were feasible if the county built a new courthouse on another site.

County commissioners previously declined Mr. Conaway's proposal to do such a study for $6,500. The county instead offered to sell the courthouse to the city of Tiffin for $500,000 and suggested the city might want to hire Mr. Conaway.

Earlier yesterday, though, Tiffin Mayor James Boroff delivered a letter to the commissioners in which he said the city had decided to "respectfully decline" the county's offer.

"All of us in city government wish to see a viable county government building in downtown Tiffin, but, at this time, we are unable to foresee any circumstances that would enable us to participate in any fashion," the mayor wrote to commissioners.

Still, Mr. Conaway told commissioners and the review board yesterday that if he could have access to the courthouse, he would "do whatever $2,000 allows me to do" and present his findings to the two sides at their July 17 meeting.

Representatives of the Tiffin Historic Trust, Heritage Ohio, and the Ohio Historic Preservation office said after the meeting they were committed to raising $2,000 to cover Mr. Conaway's fee.

Mr. Collar asked commissioners if they would be open to negotiating the time frame and sale price of the building to the city if a private developer was identified who could partner with Tiffin in the project. All three commissioners said they were convinced the city was not at all interested in getting involved.

"This is not a situation that just sprang up two weeks ago when we sent them that letter," Commissioner Ben Nutter said. "This courthouse situation has been going on for many, many, many years. The voters have been very clear to commissioners on what they do and do not want us to spend our scarce resources on. I feel we do need to move forward and remove and replace the former 1884 courthouse."

Voters have clearly stated they don't want to raise taxes to renovate the courthouse, but Mr. Nutter and Mr. Sauber have not asked voters whether they want to see the historic courthouse demolished. A Zogby International poll of county residents commissioned by The Blade last year showed likely voters favored several renovation scenarios by wide margins. The only option they disapproved of was raising taxes.

Board member David Koehl suggested the county include a new juvenile court in the juvenile detention facility it has talked about building, leave the common pleas courts in the annex building, and sell the old courthouse to the highest bidder at a public auction.

Commissioners said that idea would not work, largely because it does not plan to build a new juvenile detention center at this time and it would have no control over who bought the courthouse and what they did with it.

Mr. Koehl also suggested that if the city did not want the courthouse, perhaps another governmental entity - a state or federal agency - might be interested in it.

Another option thrown out but not discussed was a proposal by Seneca County native James Bell, an architect from Bowling Green, who gave officials a plan that called for building a subgrade addition to the courthouse that could provide needed space for the courts until the county can afford to renovate the building.

"This was completely unsolicited as a hometown boy concerned about his courthouse," Mr. Bell said after the meeting.

Franco Ruffini, deputy state historic preservation officer, said his office did not have discretionary funds to spend on Mr. Conaway's study, but said it could and would ask supporters to donate to the cause. He said he was encouraged by the progress in efforts to preserve the courthouse.

"It's still hanging in there and we bought a little bit of time today," he said after the meeting.

Theresa Sullivan, president of the Tiffin Historic Trust, also said she was encouraged.

"The dialogue continues and that is the biggest thing," she said. "From my standpoint, we need to get all government entities working together for the good of the community and exhausting all options."

Earlier in the day, Ms. Sullivan talked to county commissioners about a new organization she's part of called the Central Business District Group, which wants to get government agencies to work together to rejuvenate the local economy. The group would like to see downtown Tiffin capitalize on the river that runs through it, on its heritage in glass-making, its historic architecture, and other assets.

"We have so much here that is not utilized," she said.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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