The contentious issue of where Habersham County’s new courthouse will go may have come one step closer to being settled this week when the Clarkesville City Council signed a joint city-county resolution.
The Habersham County Board of Commissioners wants to put the new facility on a 30-acre tract it bought about 1.7 miles east of downtown Clarkesville, but needs the city to annex the property because the courthouse must be in the city limits of the county seat.
City Council last year voted against the annexation amid concerns by residents that moving the courthouse from downtown could affect business.
The new resolution, signed this week by the council, says that Clarkesville and the county “will cooperate in all matters and more specifically in matters regarding the proposed relocation of the county courthouse.”
Two other issues will be settled before any proposed annexation, according to the resolution.
First, the existing circa-1967 courthouse must have renovations to its facade “in keeping with the historical character of downtown Clarkesville.” Secondly, the county and city will create a tax and financing incentives package to attract a developer to build a hotel and special events center at the site of the old North Habersham Junior High School on Lewellyn Street.
The now-cleared North Habersham site, about a block away from Main Street, was previously pitched as an alternative site for a new courthouse near downtown but was rejected by county officials.
Council member Franklin Brown said Tuesday that the two issues were part of an effort to address concerns about the courthouse judicial operations moving out of downtown. He said those were “just two issues we’ve discussed so far.”
“We’re in ongoing discussions to find the best situation for the city and county; we just haven’t reached the solution yet,” Brown said. “But we’re working together, trying to reach a good solution for everybody. We’re trying to maintain and expand our downtown.”
The City Council tabled a scheduled vote on an annexation of a state highway that adjoins the proposed new judicial center site east of downtown. The annexation would require an act of the legislature and the council needed some additional information, but must vote by its March 1 meeting, he said.
Annexing the state road would not necessarily mean the city would vote to annex the Ga. 17 property for a new courthouse, Brown said.
“This would annex no land other than the highway right of way, which is already part of the city’s future planning,” Brown said. “We are not attempting to or agreeing to annex any private property at this time.”
Clarkesville City Manager Barbara Kesler said she took issue with the contention by some opponents of a courthouse move that the downtown district was in decline.
“It’s not in a state of decline,” she said. “The occupancy rate is not any different than it’s ever been. We are working diligently to attract new businesses and have attracted new businesses that have been successful.”
Kesler pointed to recent downtown success stories such as Jendi’s Corner Market, the Bumblebery’s gift shop and Natalie Jane’s restaurant as proof that downtown Clarkesville is thriving.
Kesler said the plan to attract an events center to the Old Habersham site would include the developer making “little or no” output for the cost of the land, valued on tax rolls at $126,000.
The facade improvements to the old courthouse would bring its architecture more in line with the rest of downtown, she said.
County officials have said if the judicial operations of the courthouse are moved east of downtown, the old courthouse would serve as county administrative offices.
The Habersham County commission is expected to sign the resolution at its Feb. 15 meeting.