Windsor County Voters to Face Courthouse Bond Issue Again
Assistant Judge Jack Anderson, of Woodstock, climbs the curved staircase that is the only access to the second floor of the Windsor County Courthouse. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Assistant Judge Jack Anderson goes over the proposed plans for a renovation to the Windsor County Courthouse in Woodstock. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
A shelf of legal records dating back to the 1800's sit in the vault on the first floor of the Windsor County Courthouse in Woodstock. The court house opened in 1855 after a fire started by firecrackers destroyed the old one. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Assistant Judge Jack Anderson of Woodstock opens the window to the fire escape in a second floor office of the Windsor County Courthouse in Woodstock. Anderson said that judges will sometimes climb out the window and down the fire escape to their vehicles rather than taking the regular route down the staircase. (
Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Woodstock — The last time the Windsor County Courthouse was substantially renovated was at the turn of the century, and now its two assistant judges are looking to fund more changes in the form of a $2 million, countywide bond at Town Meeting.
The rub? Those renovations happened at the turn of the 20th century.
Besides general maintenance, said Jack Anderson, one of the assistant judges, the county courthouse on Woodstock’s village green hasn’t been upgraded since 1899. It’s been in continuous use since 1855, holding predominately civil cases for residents throughout Windsor County.
“This is owned by the county,” Anderson said on Friday, sitting in the jury room. “This is not Woodstock’s building.”
So Anderson and Assistant Judge David Singer have added a special article to all Town Meeting ballots in the county’s 24 towns, which asks for $2 million worth of bond money. The money would help make the old courthouse compliant with the American Disabilities Act; for instance, there is no elevator, and the courtroom can only be reached via stairs.
Additionally, improvements would include a 1,250-square-foot addition to be built on the back of the courthouse so people with physical disabilities can enter at grade level — the front entrance has stairs, but no ramp — and take an elevator up to the second floor. The addition would also allow juries and judges to enter and exit the courtroom without walking through the public area.
Money would also be put toward central air conditioning, as the court’s current window units need to be turned off during trials. Standing fans cycle hot air through the room during court proceedings.
“It gets pretty sultry up there,” Singer said.
If the bond passes at Town Meeting, taxes would rise one-fourth of a penny per $100 of assessed value, Anderson said. That means, on average, taxes would go up $5 a year for 10 years on a property assessed at $200,000.
Anderson and Singer said the 10-year payment is like buying a sandwich a year, or a single tank of gas. The two have spent the past couple of months holding presentations in towns around the county. So far, they’ve hit 20 of Windsor County’s two dozen towns. Their first stop, in December, was Hartland.
Hartland Town Manager Bob Stacey said he and the Selectboard were impressed by the presentation, and didn’t see a reason to vote against the bond. “I think the way the courthouse is set up now is kind of ridiculous,” he said.
But some officials in other towns weren’t about the project, even though they all agreed the changes would be beneficial. One concern was that voters, who tend to consider issues that specifically affect their town, simply aren’t aware of the county’s desire for courthouse renovations, and might be blindsided by a number in the millions of dollars.
It hits even closer to home for the town of Windsor, which is already trying to pass a $2 million bond for town water and sewer system repairs.
“There really hasn’t been much of a discussion,” Town Manager Tom Marsh said. “It’s just something that’s not on people’s radars.” Marsh, who supports the renovations, added that there’s a “wild card” in putting a piece of paper in front of someone and asking them for $2 million for an initiative they haven’t heard of.
Ken Parker, the chairman of Hartford’s Selectboard, agreed that there has been very little talk of this bond in the area. “I was quite surprised that we had this dumped on our desk with very little discussion or time allowed for discussion,” he said. “It’s my sense that maybe something needs to be done there, but I’m not sure that the timing of doing it right now is well-thought through.”
That skepticism isn’t new when it comes to the courthouse. In 1998, the court’s two assistant judges put a $4.7 million bond article on town ballots, for a wider array of renovations and an addition about six times as large as the one proposed this year.
“It went down hard,” Singer said.
So the scope of changes this time around have been drastically reduced, centered more around having a reasonable, accessible building than anything else. While the bathrooms would be made handicap-accessible and a holding cell would be installed so the court could hold the occasional criminal trial, the courtroom itself won’t be touched.
On Friday afternoon, Anderson sat on a table in that courtroom, in front of the rows of pre-Civil War benches, built in Woodstock. Portraits of distinguished leaders dotted the walls, the paint cracking over time. Just outside the room, a rope, tied to a banister, led to the belfry.
Anderson peered upward, toward the ceiling, and then brought his gaze back to eye level.
“This is worth preserving,” he said. “Don’t you think?”
Jon Wolper can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3248.