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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  1. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.