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Debate over historic Brown County courthouse continues

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At one of the state’s most-visited tourist crossroads stands a courthouse at a crossroads of its own.

Nestled in the rugged, rolling hills of southern Indiana, the rustic Brown County courthouse in Nashville feels more at home in the 19th century than the 21st, and plenty of folks say that suits them fine. But officials worry.

They say the building doesn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. There is no security to speak of, and space for jurors, lawyers and clients isn’t sufficient. And the clerk’s office doesn’t even have enough space for files.

brown-courthouse-rendering-2-15col.jpg An architect’s rendering of the Brown County courthouse in Nashville shows the original structure – roughly the front third – with a proposed $6.5 million expansion that residents overwhelmingly rejected last year. Community discussions now are weighing various alternatives. (Photo submitted)

“We’re not addressing those things,” Brown County Commissioner John Kennard said. “We have a horrendous lack of room. It’s an 1870s building. … We’ve got people that are working in an old vault.”

Last September, about 200 people signed a petition for the county to borrow nearly $6.5 million to expand the historic two-story brick structure and address a laundry list of needs. Taxpayers and registered voters revolted, gathering nearly eight times as many signatures in opposition, snuffing the project for at least a year.

“We got killed,” Kennard said. “A lot of issues in Brown County get emotionally charged.”

That was the case with the courthouse initiative. He believes many people felt shut out of a process that began with a courthouse energy audit and evolved into an out-of-town architect’s detailed proposal for a renovation and expansion to address needs identified by courthouse users.

Local leaders got the message after the remonstrance. Since September, groups have held numerous public community conversations to talk about those needs and possible solutions, leaving all options on the table. Kennard wishes those kinds of discussions had taken place earlier.

“It is a fascinating matrix of issues – tradition, location, obviously, and how to preserve the traditional and meet the modern-day needs,” said William C. Lloyd, a Bloomington attorney who lives in Brown County.

Lloyd serves as volunteer counsel for the Brown County Community Foundation which, with the local League of Women Voters, has sponsored numerous meetings inviting public participation to talk about and study various options for the courthouse and how to meet needs.

Foundation CEO Larry Pejeau took the helm shortly after the courthouse expansion was shot down by voters, but he’s lived in Nashville since the 1970s.

“It’s a pretty interesting county,” he said. “We have some old families here that had businesses in Nashville for some time and feel the quaintness of Nashville is important and say, ‘Leave it the way it is.’”

Architectural renderings of a two-story addition to the old courthouse struck some nerves, even though pains had been taken to maintain the historic structure and ensure new construction reflected its style.

“It was very polarized a year ago,” Pejeau said. “People are at least talking now.”

Pejeau said there are voices advocating for construction of a new courthouse near the sheriff’s department on State Road 46 east of State Road 135, away from the commercial center of Nashville, or retrofitting an inn that is for sale. Those options would allow for repurposing the existing courthouse, which is the center of a historic square that also includes a log jail and the Brown County Historical Society’s Pioneer Village.

Others would have none of that. They favor slight modifications to the current courthouse to comply with the ADA and bolstering security while finding needed space elsewhere. “Some people just say, ‘No, the courthouse has been good for 100 years, do what you need to do and keep it here in town,’” Pejeau explained.

Subgroups have formed to explore various options, and they’ve reported back with their findings from time to time. That’s given people an opportunity to more closely gain perspective about what the needs are and help determine the best way forward.

Brown Circuit Judge Judith Stewart is happy to be part of the discussions but, perhaps judiciously, she’s not taking sides. “I think it’s going to be up to the public, the commissioners and the council,” she said.

Various plans have pros and cons, Stewart said, “and I have no position on those. … I’m just trying to explain where I think some of the needs are.”

Stewart said the courthouse does need better security – not just for the public but also a secured entrance for people in custody whom deputies transport to and from jail. The jury room is too small, and facilities are such that sometimes she and jurors come into contact outside the courtroom.

“It’s tough for folks who don’t work in the environment every day to see,” she said.

Kennard has asked residents to see for themselves what the needs are, but few are willing. But it’s only a matter of time, he said, before the county’s hand may be forced. “All it would take is somebody to walk in there and file (an ADA) complaint, and you’re going to have to address it.

“We need to decide what we’re going to do, and where we’re going to do it,” he said, but he’s not optimistic about a consensus developing in spite of efforts to draw the community together. “We continue to stir the pot. I’d say it’s going to be a long time before there’s a decision.”

But Pejeau is optimistic. He expects meetings regarding the courthouse will continue to take place. “I think what people like,” he said, “is this is just a really good process.

“Nobody doubts there are ADA issues and security issues that need addressed,” he said. “People are very aware of that. … I think we’re slowly coming to some consensus as to what’s best for the community.”

Pejeau credits Kennard and other local leaders for engaging in the community discussions in a county with a unique set of circumstances. Being a bucolic tourist destination isn’t always easy.

“Brown County has a brand, and we have an infrastructure you can’t build. It’s a beautiful place to live, and that’s why people want to live here,” he said.

But that also presents some challenges. With just 15,000 residents, the population is among the state’s oldest and, at the same time, healthiest, Pejeau said. An influx of retirees attracted by the desirable environment has raised the cost of property and in some cases priced out younger families.

The vast Brown County State Park and state forest land also puts about half of all property in the county off the tax rolls, leaving fewer landowners to cover the bills for government services.

Pejeau noted there is no industry of any significant size in the county and no big-box stores, either of which normally would pay a greater share of taxes. At the same time, that’s part of the lure – “a blessing,” Pejeau said of the local mind-set.

And just as residents last year came together with a resounding “No” to a proposal they didn’t agree with, Pejeau said the response to that also says something about the county.

“For the most part, it’s been a very healthy conversation in the community, I think.”•
 

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