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Published: Wednesday, 7/9/2008

Seneca County Courthouse talks to precede any legal action

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - Whether Tiffin's Architectural Board of Review can stop Seneca County from razing the Beaux Arts courthouse in the center of the city's historic downtown is a question that's been asked and re-asked over the last month.

This week, city Law Director Brent Howard weighed in with a legal opinion written at the mayor's request that said the county must make a reasonable attempt to comply with the city's design review rules. Still, he wrote, if the county does not get the review board's blessing to proceed with demolition, he would not recommend the city pursue the matter in court because it would likely lose.

Just as in other cases where city zoning conflicted with county or state building projects, Mr. Howard said, a court would have to balance the two public interests and rule in favor of the side that would serve the needs of the most people.

"The commissioners' public purpose to rebuild the county courthouse for the essential county governmental use, when compared to the city's public purpose [to preserve historic architecture], serves the needs of the greater number of citizens," Mr. Howard wrote in his opinion.

Mayor Jim Boroff said that does not mean the city would not take the matter to court, but more importantly, he said, things have not reached that point. The review board, which voted 5-0 June 10 to deny the county's application to demolish the downtown landmark, is to meet with commissioners a third time July 17 to continue discussing alternatives.

"It's an opinion he rendered," the mayor said. "We haven't reached any point where anyone needs to make a decision."

John Barga, a Tiffin attorney who represented six county residents who sued commissioners last year over the courthouse issue, declined to comment on whether his clients would want to pursue the matter in court if it came to that. Jackie Fletcher, one of those clients, said it was "premature" to consider more legal action when talks between commissioners and the review board were continuing.

"We would of course hope it wouldn't come to that," she said. "Look at [Monday]. Two ideas popped out of nowhere without any solicitation."

Among those ideas, review board member David Koehl suggested the county include a new juvenile court in a new juvenile detention center and sell the old courthouse at public auction. A Bowling Green architect submitted a proposal for a subgrade addition to the old courthouse and a modified renovation plan.

Commissioner Ben Nutter said he hasn't heard any ideas that would be financially doable. "It's frustrating to me to try and articulate again what exactly not only this board of commissioners but every board of commissioners for the last 20 years has done," he said. "I get the feeling they want us to prove to them that we have no other options, and to me, I don't think we're obligated to give them any more proof than the taxpayers have told us they don't want to dedicate any more tax dollars to the courthouse."

A sales tax to support renovation was defeated in 2002, as was a bond issue requested in March.

Both ballot issues asked voters if they wanted to raise additional taxes to renovate the historic courthouse. Voters have not been asked if they would approve using existing tax funds for such a renovation.

Commissioners have not yet pulled out of the process or declared an impasse, although at Monday's meeting with the review board, they and county Prosecutor Ken Egbert, Jr., made it clear that if they didn't hear a concrete alternative to demolishing the courthouse, they would be done talking.

"We'd like to know what alternative use proposal there is because there's currently nothing," Mr. Egbert told the review board. "We're to the point, at least from the board's perspective, that we think the [review] board ought to consider whether it is creating a substantial hardship to the county to exercise its power" to provide a courthouse.

Dr. Robert Yager, president of the review board, responded that at least one alternative was on the table as Franklin Conaway, a preservation consultant from Chillicothe, Ohio, offered to conduct a feasibility study of alternative uses for the courthouse. Mr. Conaway is expected to present the results of his study at the July 17 meeting.

Commissioners, meanwhile, are to open bids from demolition contractors tomorrow. They have 60 days after that to award a demolition contract.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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