Nancy Schaefer is worried about the future of Clarkesville, and the ongoing saga of the Habersham County Courthouse plays a big part in her concerns.
No other local issue has polarized the community in recent years like the future location of the county’s planned new judicial center. Members of the Habersham County Board of Commissioners want to build the new courthouse in an area off Ga. 17 outside the current city limits about 1.7 miles east of downtown. Opponents say the move would further hurt an already-declining downtown.
The ongoing debate has prompted an advisory committee review, an independent study, a probe by the district attorney’s office and several packed meetings.
On the eve of a Clarkesville City Council meeting in which a pivotal vote could be cast, some residents remain steadfast over keeping the judicial center downtown.
"To move the courthouse out of the city of Clarkesville, I just don’t feel is wise," Schaefer said. "Right now we need to focus on keeping the courthouse within the city to keep the vitality of Clarkesville alive as much as we can."
Another opponent of the move, former Clarkesville Business and Community Association President John Lunsford, said there are three things that can kill downtown activity:
building a bypass, moving the post office and moving the courthouse.
"We’ve hit all but one," Lunsford said. "We’ve been bypassed, and we’ve moved the post office."
Lunsford also resents what he believes is the county governments attempts to expand Clarkesville’s city limits for the judicial center.
"We do not need the county commission telling us where our city limits are going to be," Lunsford said.
The controversy over the courthouse started shortly after the county commission purchased a 30-acre tract of land for $1.1 million in August 2008 that was not in the city limits of Clarkesville, the county seat. State law requires county courthouses to be located in the city limits of the county seat, and commissioners apparently got no assurances from their city counterparts that the land would be annexed before the purchase was made.
Since then, the Clarkesville City Council has voted down the proposed annexation, citing concerns that the move would have a negative impact on downtown.
In May 2009, a masters degree candidate at the University of Georgia prepared a study on the possible impact of a courthouse relocation.
Mary Ivey’s report concluded that it would be detrimental to downtown Clarkesville if the judicial center was built at the proposed site on Ga. 17.
"Having the courthouse in the downtown area gives people a reason to drive through," Ivey wrote.
The same month Ivey’s study was prepared, Habersham County District Attorney Brian Rickman opened an investigation into the land purchase after receiving complaints. Rickman’s office looked into whether comparative estimates for site improvements between sites under consideration were grossly disproportionate and whether any county commissioners had a business interest in the purchase.
"At this time, no evidence of any violations of Georgia criminal law has been discovered," Rickman said in a statement.
Habersham County Commission Chairman Gerald Dunham did not return messages seeking comment last week. Vice-Chairman Charlie Miller said a consulting company, Pond and Co., was helping mediate site location discussions between the county and the city.
"It’s been going on a while, we hope to resolve it, and that’s all I can say," Miller said. He referred all other questions to the Habersham County Manager’s office.
Assistant County Manager Jason Tinsley acknowledged that in a competitive climate for construction costs, the sooner ground is broken on the bond-funded project, the better. Price estimates have dropped from the $24 million range to about $18 million during the recession economy.
"Needless to say, we’re desperate to get moving on the project," Tinsley said.
Tinsley said the footprint of the current courthouse was ruled out as a site almost immediately because of traffic, parking and issues of it being landlocked. Property that would be needed for a new courthouse built for growth is not currently for sale, he said.
"As our project manager pointed out, it’s nothing money couldn’t solve – it just didn’t fit into our budget," Tinsley said.
County officials have argued that downtown businesses wouldn’t be affected by a loss of foot traffic because the current courthouse, built in 1967, would be renovated to house county administrative offices that are scattered around the county.
"Our board’s argument is that we would essentially have two courthouses in Clarkesville," Tinsley said. "The new one on the proposed site, and then the consolidated day-to-day (county) activities that have left downtown Clarkesville because of space issues.
"We had hoped that it might increase the type of traffic they would want, since rather than folks who are on trial in court, they would get regular citizens, paying their taxes or getting their building permits or registering to vote – it would all be in one central location," Tinsley said.
Tinsley said commissioners feel they have made progress in a pair of two-on-two private meetings with their city counterparts in recent months.
"I think Clarkesville’s main concern was that we had a viable plan for the existing courthouse," Tinsley said.
Clarkesville Mayor Terry Greene said many of his constituents in the town of 1,700 have expressed concern about the economic impact of a courthouse move.
"Whatever solution we ultimately come up with will have to address those concerns," Greene said. "Part of the ultimate solution will have to include something to offset that."
Greene said the city council is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to seek an act of the state legislature allowing a portion of the state road between the county’s proposed site and the city limits to be annexed. That step would be necessary before the city could annex the Ga. 17 property, he said.
"The main thing is we don’t need to rush into anything based on construction costs or interest rates," Greene said. "Whatever is decided needs to be based on the merits of location and other factors.
"Sometimes it’s hard to make everybody happy," Greene said. "Someone may be dissatisfied no matter what comes out of it. But whatever we decide will be for the benefit of everyone."