Meadville Tribune

Local News

April 26, 2014

Costs keep coming for courthouse expansion proposal

MEADVILLE — Buying seven downtown properties near the Crawford County Courthouse to create parking for a possible courthouse expansion may cost the county at least $363,000, according to a Meadville Tribune estimate.

The $363,000 estimate is based on a review of county property records of previous sale prices of the properties involved. However, some of those properties were last sold 30 years ago or more. Currently, the seven properties generate about $8,400 a year in property taxes for the City of Meadville. The city would lose that funding if the properties were purchased by the county.

The price tag for parking is in addition to the estimated $26 million cost for a two-story expansion plus basement on the north side of the present courthouse for a courts wing, Francis Weiderspahn Jr., chairman of Crawford County Board of Commissioners, said in a recent interview with the Tribune.

The cost of parking “would weigh in on our final decision on what we’re going to do,” he said.

Commissioners are considering a proposed expansion of the present courthouse in downtown Meadville to alleviate overcrowding, instead of going with a now more than two-year-old proposal to split courthouse functions into a separate administrative building downtown and courts-related buildings at the former Talon Inc. site on upper Arch Street.

Since 2010, when the previous board of commissioners purchased the former Talon site, to Dec. 31, 2013, Crawford County has spent $4.1 million on capital projects such as partial building tear downs, site clearance and asbestos removal at the Talon site; capital projects such as roof replacement at the courthouse; and architectural fees associated with the courthouse and Talon sites.

The $26 million cost to expand the courthouse is closer to the two-facility original cost estimate of $25.3 million.

In January 2012, a county-appointed Citizens Advisory Committee recommended the current courthouse be renovated into an administrative center while the county-owned former Talon Inc. site on upper Arch Street become a county courts complex with some other outlying county departments moved into one of the two sites.

The CAC’s two-building recommendation had an initial projected price tag of $25.3 million, but it rose to between $30.5 million and $31.2 million — an increase of 20.5 to 23.3 percent — by mid-summer 2013. The estimates increased as county officials refined the project, adding in specific details.

County officials opted to look at an expansion of the courthouse itself as a way to lower the cost compared to the two-site option.

“It will be mid- to late summer before we make any decision,” Weiderspahn said.

No matter when a decision is made, parking will be a crucial issue for any courthouse changes, he added.

The Talon site between upper Arch and Pine streets would have ample parking available on about 11 total acres, including a large parking lot off Pine.

Under the option of a two-story addition at the courthouse, a county-owned parking lot north of the courthouse and John Holt Way would be lost as it would become part of the addition.

There would be 60 parking spaces lost — 49 in the parking lot and 11 along John Holt Way — making the parking situation around the courthouse tighter as the county doesn’t have enough parking for the current employees. The addition would also bring more county offices — such as juvenile probation and domestic relations — back into the building, adding to the total number of employees there.

Earlier this month, commissioners approved a one-year option with Professional Development Associates of Erie at a cost of $100 per month, or $1,200 for a year, for vacant land at 369 and 379 Walnut St.

The site, located north of the courthouse, would provide 58 parking spaces if the county decides to exercise the option to buy or lease the lot.

The purchase of the seven properties near courthouse could add up to another 71 spaces if the buildings on them are cleared. If the county tears down the current juvenile probation office on Chestnut Street, another 11 spaces would add to a county-owned parking lot at Chestnut and Federal Court.

“If we do anything I’d prefer to purchase rather than lease,” Weiderspahn said of properties that are north of the courthouse and south of Walnut Street and properties east of the courthouse.

But, one potential snag for the county could be whether to clear the former Tarr Mansion, a large ornate brick building north of the courthouse next to Walnut Street, if it buys that property, according to Weiderspahn.

The owner of the Tarr Mansion as well as several other property owners near the courthouse have approached the county about buying their properties, Weiderspahn said.

The Tarr Mansion was built in the 1860s by James and Elizabeth Tarr after they became millionaires during the nation’s first oil boom. Oil was discovered in 1861 on the James Tarr farm in what is now Oil Creek State Park near Titusville. After receiving well more than $1 million in royalties, Tarr in 1865 sold his interest in the farm for $2 million in gold. The Tarrs moved to Meadville and built the residence.

The Tarr Mansion is located within Meadville’s historic district, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Meadville’s historic district is bounded by Chancery Lane on the east, Walnut Street on the north, Mulberry Street on the west, and Chestnut Street on the south.

“It’s been discussed with Weber Murphy Fox (the county’s architect on the project),” Weiderspahn said of the mansion. “It may be torn down or we may use it or use part of it — maybe for non-court-related offices.”

According to the National Register of Historic Places website, a property owner may do whatever they want with their property as long as there are no federal monies attached to the property.

Gary Johnson, the city’s zoning administrator, said Meadville has no historic preservation statues, but any expansion of the courthouse may require a zoning hearing depending on whether construction would encroach property line setbacks.

Howard Coleman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, said the state follows National Register of Historic Places regulations, but any local preservation laws would supersede the state.

If the county expands the courthouse, the county-owned Talon site could be used for parking, especially for jurors during trial terms of Crawford County Court of Common Pleas, Weiderspahn said. Commissioners have been discussing that option with President Judge Anthony Vardaro, he said.

“The president judge is fine with it the 18 days a year for jurors,” Weiderspahn said. “But for every day, he doesn’t like the plan. People aren’t going to want to park up there and go back and forth to work.

“We are responsible for housing of the courts,” he continued. “There’s got to be a mutually agreeable plan.”

Weiderspahn said the county could use a shuttle bus service through Crawford Area Transportation Authority to transport people from the Talon parking area to the courthouse. Bus discussions with CATA are preliminary and no cost figures have been mentioned, Weiderspahn said.

If commissioners opt to expand the courthouse, Weiderspahn would like to have the county put the Talon property up for sale.

“If we do everything here, there’s no point in hanging onto that,” Weiderspahn said of the Talon property. “I’d hate to put more money into tearing it down if someone can make use of it. My first choice is to put on tax rolls to offset what we’re taking off tax rolls.”

Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.

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