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Published: Friday, 12/23/2011

Seneca Co. courthouse's backers glum about future

Ohio Supreme Court refused to halt demolition work

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The Seneca County Courthouse sits silent as workmen busily labor inside this week, removing asbestos before demolition can begin. The Seneca County Courthouse sits silent as workmen busily labor inside this week, removing asbestos before demolition can begin.
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TIFFIN -- Hopes of preserving the courthouse Seneca County built in 1884 dimmed after the Ohio Supreme Court rejected a bid to stop demolition work.

David Carroll, a Columbus attorney who filed a taxpayers' lawsuit seeking to save the building, said without a temporary restraining order to keep the bulldozers at bay, he doesn't know how the courthouse can be saved. The suit remains before the court but could take months to play out -- months courthouse advocates don't have time to wait.

Asbestos removal began this week, and B&B Wrecking and Excavating of Cleveland expects to begin demolition work Jan. 3, according to a notification filed with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

"The only ones who can save the building now are the common pleas judges," Mr. Carroll said. "The common pleas judges have the right to issue orders to the county commissioners with respect to the adequacy of their court facilities."

Franklin Conaway, president of the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group, which proposed a nearly $8 million plan to renovate the courthouse, said he believes the local judges understand the viability of the renovation plan and understand that the courthouse is symbolic of the lofty ideals of our justice system.

"They still have the opportunity to act, and I hope they will because they are the only and best hope, in my opinion," Mr. Conaway said.

Through the years, as the county wrestled with whether to renovate the courthouse it vacated in 2004 or tear it down and rebuild, the judges remained publicly neutral on the issue.

On Monday, Common Pleas Judge Steve Shuff sent a letter to commissioners reminding them of "their legal duty to provide a courthouse adequate for the efficient administration of justice."

The letter, filed with the taxpayers' lawsuit, said the court's current facilities inside the annex building were inadequate, but he stopped short of ordering the board to make changes.

Judge Shuff was out of the office and not available for comment Thursday. Common Pleas Judge Michael Kelbley declined to comment.

Although the two judges along with Probate and Juvenile Court Judge Jay Meyer and Clerk of Courts Mary Ward are scheduled to be deposed by Mr. Carroll next week, Mr. Carroll said he was unsure if those interviews would take place.

"I have not gotten instructions from my clients. They have not totally absorbed what happened yesterday," he said, referring to the Supreme Court's 6-1 denial of a temporary restraining order.

David Carroll David Carroll
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The justices gave no reason for denying an emergency order to halt demolition, but through court spokesman Chris Davey, they said the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct discourages judges from publicly discussing pending cases. The Seneca County lawsuit "is still a pending case, and therefore we are unable to discuss it publicly or explain the reasoning behind specific rulings on procedural motions," the justices said in a statement provided by Mr. Davey. "These restrictions are in place to ensure that parties can know their cases are heard fairly and impartially."

Courthouse supporters in Tiffin were downcast Thursday. They had talked of holding a rally outside the courthouse Friday but canceled those plans. "With this news, there's not much to rally about," said Jackie Fletcher, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

"I think everyone is so stunned at this moment that there isn't a plan" of what to do next, said Nancy Rubenstein, a member of the Tiffin Historic Trust. "I think people are just in such shock."

Mr. Carroll sounded downcast about the prospects as well.

"I just want everyone to know that what we have been trying to do is to do what we believe is right for the citizens of Seneca County, which is to provide the best cost alternative to providing adequate facilities for the efficient administration of justice and at the same time preserve the 1884 courthouse, which is thee symbol of justice in Seneca County," he said. "Obviously, the commissioners see things differently."

Mr. Conaway said it bothers him that the commissioners refused to allow the redevelopment group's financial experts to meet with the county's bond counsel about making the renovation project work.

"It is a fact that the courthouse can be renovated in a cost-effective manner and the funding is available now to do that," he said. "For the commissioners to say they cannot afford to renovate the courthouse is a deliberate misrepresentation of their ability, but they continue to protect themselves from those representations by refusing open and honest dialogue on the subject."

He said he's not giving up yet, bleak as things look. "In the preservation world, it's never over until the building is gone," Mr. Conaway said. "Many, many of the grandest buildings that are back into use were saved at the very last moment."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.



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