The Hancock County Courthouse in Ellsworth. The state is interested in buying an adjacent 2-acre property owned by former state legislator Ruth Foster so it can build a new courthouse in the city. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Maine’s court system is looking to acquire a piece of property in Ellsworth for a new courthouse, possibly on a residential site adjacent to the existing courthouse complex.

The state has been looking into a few options for upgrading its court facilities in Ellsworth, including the possibility of adding onto the existing 1930s building and building anew, either next door adjacent to the county jail or in another part of the city.

The court system’s preference is to acquire and build a new courthouse next to the jail, on a 2-acre site currently owned and occupied by former state legislator and Ellsworth businesswoman Ruth Foster, said William Clark, chairman of the Hancock County Board of Commissioners.

Building at another site away from the jail would complicate getting inmates to and from the courthouse for court appearances, he said. Trying to squeeze more building space onto the current courthouse building, which sits on a sloping site between State Street and the Union River, would be like “putting lipstick on a pig,” Clark said.

Foster’s comparatively level property to the immediate north of the courthouse complex is more construction-friendly, he said.

“We’ve always looked at that with a bunch of envy,” Clark said.

Last month, Ted Glessner, the state court system’s administrator, told county commissioners that building on Foster’s property would be optimal for several reasons, including its acreage, location next to the existing jail, and proximity to downtown Ellsworth, according to published minutes of the commissioners’ special April 15 meeting.

The commissioners voted 3-0 at that meeting in support of the state’s interest in acquiring land in Ellsworth for a new courthouse, though the vote did not specifically mention Foster’s property.

Foster said Tuesday that neither the state nor county has contacted her about buying her property, though she knows that building a new courthouse where her home stands now is the preferred option.

Foster, who is 92 and closed her downtown store more than a year ago, said she might be willing to sell, as long as building a new courthouse there is in the city’s and county’s best interests. The 5,700-square-foot house, which was built in 1840, and the land it sits on have a cumulative assessed value of $488,400, generating an annual property tax bill of roughly $8,700.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do,” she said.

Glessner said Tuesday the state wants to build a new courthouse in Ellsworth because the current building, which has multiple points of public entry, is not secure enough by current standards. It also has offices for court staff that are spread out at different locations separated by public hallways, rather than concentrated together.

Glessner said his office already has money to acquire Foster’s property, left over from funds the Legislature approved for courthouse improvement or construction projects in Belfast, South Paris and Biddeford, but that he needs the Legislature’s approval to spend it. If the Legislature approves the expenditure, which could happen in the next few weeks, he said, then he will contact Foster. The city has assessed her property’s value for tax purposes at $488,400.

If the state were to build a new courthouse there, Clark said, it would make it fairly easy for inmates to get to and from court, and it would free up space in the existing courthouse for other needs.

The district attorney’s office could move into the existing courthouse from the annex building next door, which used to house radio station WDEA and does not have good handicapped access, Clark said. The annex is “a money pit,” he said.

Hancock County’s emergency management agency could also move out of its current cramped offices in the courthouse basement, Clark said, and commissioners could have a larger room to hold meetings. Their current meeting room, on the second floor near the court clerks’ offices, fills up with only roughly 20 people.

“That’s going to open a ton of free space for us,” he said.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....