BELFAST, Maine — Major changes will be coming to Belfast’s judicial landscape soon, as the state of Maine has decided it is past time to consolidate, upgrade and modernize the city’s two existing court buildings — one of which was built back in 1853.
“Waldo County buildings were just seriously in need of major upgrades and renovations,” Mary Ann Lynch, the media counsel for the Maine Judicial Branch, said recently. “We know there’s a lot of buildings in bad shape. … We have been pecking along, I’d say, at the list of buildings that really, really need to be renovated or replaced. Our first desire is always to try and renovate the building.”
This spring, Gov. Paul LePage signed Public Law 468, an act to modernize and consolidate court facilities, which authorized spending up to $95.6 million on projects in Oxford, Waldo and York counties. The state recently has modernized the courts in Bangor, Augusta, Houlton, Dover-Foxcroft and Machias.
Lynch said the state is planning to construct a new, $17 million combined court building to replace the Waldo County Superior Courthouse, built in 1853, and the Belfast District Court, built in 1930. If that happens, Maine will return both buildings to the sole use of Waldo County, which owns them.
However, Belfast City Planner Wayne Marshall said the city is hoping the state will consider renovating and expanding the superior court building. That imposing brick structure stands on the corner of Market and Church streets, right next door to Belfast City Hall. Although the state determined about six months ago that there isn’t enough space on the corner to renovate the 1853 building, that may change, Marshall said.
City officials told Waldo County Commissioners earlier this month they are willing to relocate Market Street so the state of Maine could have more space to renovate the courthouse. The state’s desired renovations include building a sally port to make it safer to bring in incarcerated defendants and creating more parking spaces for workers and the public.
“We would really like to keep the courthouses downtown,” he said Wednesday morning. “We see them as a real asset.”
Marshall said it likely would be easier for the county to repurpose the 1930 district courthouse, located a couple of blocks away on Church and Spring streets, than the older superior courthouse.
“And that means an abandoned building,” he said of the superior courthouse building.
In the superior court building, murals painted in the 1930s make a dramatic backdrop behind the judge’s bench, and people access the second-floor courtroom via two curving staircases.
“When I’m in the superior court building, it is very stately,” Marshall said. “It has that feel of what a court should have. It has the murals on the wall. It has a lot of history behind it.”
Waldo County Commissioner Bill Shorey said recently he is happy the state has decided to “do something” with the Waldo County courthouses. When the new unified court is built, Waldo County government, now located in the basement of the district court building, is planning to expand into the rest of the building for its offices and needs.
“We definitely needed to do an expansion,” Shorey said of the courts. “The way the state operates the system today, it’s much more important to have a unified court. The difficult decision is whether to build a new courthouse. … As far as Belfast and the county commissioners are concerned, the superior court is a prime location to add the building addition.”
Lynch said that while the state is planning to construct a new building, if the existing courthouse and site could be reconfigured within the state’s budget to meet future requirements, it would be considered along with other proposals.
The Maine Judicial Branch will be issuing a request for information about property this summer. Lynch said the state already has considered and rejected the former Crosby High School, a large downtown structure that is for sale. Among other things, the judicial branch is looking for a fully useable, developed site of 1.75 acres, a building footprint area of 13,350 square feet, setbacks adequate to protect the building and occupants against external security threats, public parking for 69 cars and prominent visibility of the building entrance from a main public street.
Once completed, the new or renovated building would include three courtrooms; a modern design that allows separate circulation routes for the public, jurors, court staff and incarcerated defendants; secure holding facilities; and an entry screening area for all public visitors.
According to the judicial branch, the project architect will be hired this July, the design will be completed by January 2017 and construction will be completed by June 2018.
Marshall said the tight timeline could complicate efforts to renovate the existing superior court house. To do that renovation and expansion, the state likely would need to acquire nearby buildings including Duval Auto Services and the American Legion Hall. Market Street also would have be moved over to accommodate the expansion.
“It’s not the simplest option to think about. This is a massive change, but we’ve done changes before,” Marshall said. “It is something we want to have back on the table. Before they walk away from the building, we hope they will consider all options.”