Listen carefully to options on courthouse

Published 9:29 am Wednesday, May 17, 2017

by Lynn Rabil

If you were riding through Southampton County today, could you find this building? Would your children be able to easily identify it? I don’t think so.

Before you put a stake in the ground in the quickly escalating discussion about the Southampton County Courthouse, please take time to objectively consider all needs, the available options and the opportunities that change could bring.

This is a photo of the Southampton County Courthouse dating to the early part of the 20th century. — Submitted | Lynn Rabil

I was born and raised in Southampton County. I taught history and government here for a few years before returning to our family business. Southampton County has a special place in my heart and I have a vested interest in maintaining what remains of its natural beauty and character. I have been guilty of fighting some forms of development and county expenditures, but also encouraging that which enhances quality of life for our citizens.

While a few dollars could potentially be saved by renovating the existing courthouse one more time, doing so may not prove to be practical or feasible as a long term solution. Unless the Fifth Circuit Court judges will accept a shoestring budget and solution to the security issues, in my opinion, any fight to keep the ‘working’ courthouse in its current location should be reconsidered

The Realities

• The current building is not historic. The location is. The historic value of the courthouse was diminished with each addition, renovation and modification. It is a confused mixture of architectural styles in varying degrees of decline. In 2010 an application for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register was denied by the Department of Historic Resources.

• There is little to no economic benefit in court proceedings and the maintenance of county records. Court day is not usually a pleasant experience that creates emotional warmth and happiness; therefore, in my opinion, the ‘working’ court hinders economic opportunities for Courtland.

• Significant renovation to the current building will be required to bring it up to new code and standards for technology and security. Such renovation will only serve to further degrade the historical relevance of the building.

• A new multipurpose modernized (but significantly retrofitted) building will continue to sit on a historic lot that is too small for future growth, thus causing greater headaches for future generations. It will continue to sit in a flood plain on an old foundation that has been flooded recently and will likely see floods in the future, thus causing greater headache for future generations. Maintaining the old building will cause headaches for our generation.

• The Fifth Judicial Circuit Court of Virginia makes the ultimate decision of whether the courthouse is safe and secure. Regardless of the outcome of a referendum, the decision is theirs to make.

The Possibilities

• Restoring the courthouse to its original charm and historic relevance could/would be budgeted. The true significance of Courtland and Southampton County history could be highlighted in a new Southampton County Visitors Center. With ample parking and lovely tree-lined sidewalks, visitors could enjoy wandering Courtland and learning about river ecology, Indian history, the Revolutionary War, President Tyler’s family and The Insurrection of 1831. They would learn about our two Civil War generals who each played extremely significant roles on opposite sides of history. Documentaries about our history could be screened for visitors in the courtroom in a ‘you are there’ scenario. A short walk from the courthouse to the Agriculture Museum ties multiple eras of social history together. Courtland would become a true tourist attraction for those who might enjoy an easy paddle or quiet bike ride, as well as a touch of history. 

• Repurposing the courthouse could allow for the housing of several government agencies including Southampton County Public Schools without the need for expansion or high level security.

• Private venture capital could be used for multiple purposes. Hundreds of historic courthouses throughout the country have been repurposed into combination restaurants/ art galleries/apartments, etc.

The town of Courtland has invested in and worked hard to develop a character and maintain a quaint setting that appeals to residents and visitors alike. My vision for the courthouse is one that would only enhance that effort.

While we as citizens may save a few dollars to maintain a ‘working’ courthouse in the current building, it is my opinion that doing something different creates new and exciting opportunities for Southampton County. We don’t know yet what location will be recommended. We don’t yet know the cost. We don’t know what the final outcome of a referendum will be. We don’t know what the judges will or won’t accept. The purpose of my letter today is simply to ask fellow citizens to listen carefully to the options and keep an open mind for now.