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TIFFIN - Seneca County's 1884 courthouse still will be standing in the new year, but commissioners are pursuing a demolition permit from the city just in case.
Commissioners voted 3-0 yesterday to appeal last week's decision by Tiffin's Architectural Board of Review denying the county's application to raze the historic downtown building. Commissioners are continuing to talk with a development group working on a plan to renovate the courthouse and said they were taken aback by the review board's vote.
Assistant County Administrator Tanya Hemmer called the city Dec. 16 to cancel the afternoon meeting after commissioners met with the Seneca County Courthouse Development Group during the morning to continue discussing a plan to turn the courthouse over to the local port authority, which would renovate it and then lease it to the county.
While Commissioner Mike Bridinger expressed concern that there had been a miscommunication with the city, fellow Commissioner Ben Nutter disagreed.
"I think we made it very clear to the architectural review board that we would meet as necessary and since we hadn't chosen to enter into an agreement with the Seneca County Courthouse Development Group nor had we chosen to move forward with removal and replacement, the point of the meeting was unnecessary," Mr. Nutter said. "I know in my heart we made that very clear to them when we set up the meeting in the first place. They chose to deny our certificate of appropriateness, which in fact the silver lining of that is now we can talk to the board of zoning appeals and hopefully deal with people that aren't conflicted and will listen to reason."
Mr. Nutter said Doug Collar, who made the motion to deny the certificate last week, was "hopelessly conflicted" when it came to the courthouse. Mr. Collar was one of seven county residents who took commissioners to court to try to stop demolition of the courthouse.
Contacted yesterday, Mr. Collar said the review board was told that commissioners would not attend the meeting but was given no explanation. In June, the review board denied the county's application but agreed to an extended waiting period during which time the county said it would explore alternatives to demolition.
"As I saw it, it was simply a reiteration of what we said in the first place," Mr. Collar said of last week's vote. "Our position is what it has been - that we had no reason to approve the certificate of appropriateness and if they want to or had wanted to formally extend the grace period or good faith period, I'm sure we would've approved it."
Theresa Sullivan, president of the Tiffin Historic Trust, implored commissioners to ask the review board to rescind its decision. She said the county was "making strides" toward a renovation plan and seeking a demolition permit would send the wrong message to foundations and other potential sources of funds for renovation.
Mr. Nutter said the county prosecutor has said commissioners could demolish the courthouse without a permit so long as they made a good faith effort to comply with the city's regulations. He said he wants the county to complete that process in the event the renovation proposal is not do-able.
"If it's economically feasible to renovate the courthouse and it fits our needs in 2010 and beyond, we'll do it. That's a fact, and I think we've demonstrated that by [the fact that] it's still sitting there," Mr. Nutter said. "But if it comes in that it's not economically feasible, the day we figure that out is the day we need to start removing that building and building a new one."
Dennis Eberly, a local attorney who chairs Tiffin's board of zoning appeals, said the county's appeal will be the first the board has ever heard regarding a decision by the architectural review board, which was created in 2000 to protect the downtown's historic identity. He said he would be consulting with the city law director before the board chimes in.
"The bottom line is I'm going to listen to what is brought to us in the appeal," Mr. Eberly said. "I'm going to listen very carefully to both sides. I'm going to listen to what our city law director advises, and we will proceed accordingly."
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