Kenyon: Renovation of Woodstock’s Historic Courthouse Topic of Wednesday Meeting

In their roles as Windsor County’s assistant judges, Jack Anderson and David Singer are accustomed to being the ones other people are trying to persuade. But for the next few months, they will be the guys doing the pleading.

Anderson and Singer have the job of selling residents in Windsor County’s 24 towns on spending up to $2 million to upgrade the courthouse in Woodstock, which was built before the Civil War. Voters will give their verdict during Town Meeting balloting in March.

The last time that county officials tried to get voters to approve major renovations to the landmark building was in 1998, and it didn’t go so well. A proposed $4.7 million project was shot down by more than 4,000 votes.

Fourteen years later, the project has been drastically scaled back, but the central question remains the same: Is it worth the dough?

From the outside, the two-story red brick building, located across from the Green, looks as stately as I imagine it did when it opened 157 years ago. (According to a history written in 1961 by then-Windsor County Clerk George Brockway, taxpayers didn’t have much choice other than to OK its construction. On July 4, 1854, “Some boys threw fire crackers on the roof of (the old) court house and it burned to the ground.”)

But before you even step inside (step being the operative word here), the building’s shortcomings are staring at you. Starting with the stone steps leading to the wooden front doors, the courthouse is the antithesis of wheelchair-friendly. Inside, more steps must be navigated to reach the court clerk’s office, where the public can file and review civil court documents. Reaching the courtroom, which is used for civil cases, on the second floor requires ascending two flights of steep stairs. The building doesn’t have an elevator or wheelchair lift.

“It’s a public building. We have to make it more accessible or we may have to stop using it,” said Superior Court Judge Harold Eaton Jr., who hears cases in Windsor and Orange counties.

The Americans with Disabilities Act has been around for more than 20 years, but the Woodstock courthouse remains disturbingly out of compliance. A private school, library or hospital open to the public couldn’t get away with such little disregard for the needs of the disabled. So why should the county not be held to the same standards?

The county gets around the law by saying that it accommodates the disabled by moving their legal proceedings to the handicapped-accessible courthouse in downtown White River Junction. When that option isn’t available, judges have moved hearings from the upstairs courtroom in Woodstock to a first-floor conference room.

But there’s still the matter of getting a wheelchair-bound person into the building and up the interior steps to the first floor. “With a couple of strong-armed men grabbing onto the wheelchair’s handles, it’s doable,” said Anderson, who sounded as thought he had been on the lifting end of such an operation more than once.

I guess that works, sort of. Until nature calls. None of the building’s rest rooms are large enough to accommodate wheelchairs.

Accessibility issues aside, the second-floor courtroom has another big problem: It’s a potential firetrap. Other than the front stairs, a rusty metal fire escape attached to the rear of the building, 20 feet above the ground, is the only way out.

This week, Anderson and Singer begin to make their case to the public. Starting tomorrow night, in Hartland, they will meet with selectboards around the county to discuss the project, and explain why it’s worthwhile. The main feature is a small addition to the rear of the building that would include an elevator and stairs to the second floor. If the proposal is approved by voters at Town Meeting, the county would issue a 20-year, low-interest bond to pay for the work. The judges are working with Norwich architect John Vansant to firm up constructions costs, after which they will have a better idea of the impact on property tax bills in each town.

“It’s not easy to ask the people for money, particularly in this economy,” said Singer. “But the situation is getting desperate.”

Because of the accessibility issues, the county sends more and more cases to the courthouse in White River Junction, which already seems to have all the business that it can handle. As a result, it can take months before some cases get heard, said Singer.

The proposed upgrades would allow for more small claims, family, juvenile and grand jury proceedings at the Woodstock courthouse. The renovation includes a holding cell, which would make it possible to hold criminal trials. “The building has to take on more life going forward,” said Anderson, a former state lawmaker.

The challenge (other than getting county voters to spend the money) is to make the courthouse more accessible and functional while maintaining its museum-like feel. The courtroom, the largest in the county, is adorned with oil paintings of 19th-century Vermont figures, including environmentalist George Marsh and Peter Washburn, a general in the Union army who later became governor. The black wooden spectator benches are as old as the courthouse itself.

“You feel the history here,” said Eaton, who grew up in Woodstock. “This building has a majesty to it, but because it’s an old building, it needs to be modernized so it can be put to better use.”

On Wednesday, at 5 p.m., the county will hold a preliminary budget hearing at the courthouse to talk about, among other things, the renovation plan. If you’re in a wheelchair and want to attend, though, you might want to call ahead.

Those steps are doozies.