ELLSWORTH — A lot has changed in the near 100 years since the Hancock County Courthouse was built.
To that end, the state of Maine Judicial Branch is launching a “space study” to examine current uses and possible expansion options for the courthouse building.
Hancock County government shares use of the three-story building with the judicial branch.
“We’re here to hear from you,” said Jeff Henthorn, director of court facilities for the Administrative Office of the Courts during a special Hancock County Commissioners meeting Tuesday.
Henthorn and Project Architect Mark Carter met with county officials and Hancock County Commission Chairman Antonio Blasi. Commissioners Bill Clark and John Wombacher were absent.
Henthorn and Carter wanted to “see what’s working, see what you think has potential for improvement, see how that meshes with the judicial side of the courthouse,” Henthorn said.
The goal is to “gather information from you to look at the big picture better,” Henthorn said. “Your concept of the building now — is it just right the way you want it or are there things you want to change?”
“A big problem that I see currently on the first floor is the use of the auxiliary courtroom,” said County Facilities Director Dennis Walls. “Tuesday’s a great example. We end up having litigants sitting as far away as we are on benches and sometimes it’s not all that cool and pleasant.”
“The district attorney and the clerks are dealing with a milk crate out in the corridor and calling cases,” Walls said. “It just seems like all of this that should be happening behind closed doors is happening right out in the open.”
Carter asked how often the auxiliary courtroom is employed.
“Every Tuesday that we know of,” said Walls. “Pretty frequently.”
Handicapped accessibility is another issue, the facilities director said.
“The only handicapped access for the first floor is through this door on the second floor to the elevator and down,” Walls said. During one incident, Walls and Assistant Facilities Director David Linnell had to carry a physically disabled woman downstairs to the first floor.
The Maine Judiciary has a jury courtroom and a non-jury courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse as well as two offices for court clerks, which are a couple hallways removed from each other.
“Having two locations for the clerk’s office is very troubling,” Henthorn said. “I haven’t had any discussions with anyone in the judicial branch yet, but we know two courtrooms isn’t enough.”
Security is another issue. All the county offices on the first floor are connected with doors, Walls said.
“One of the things when you do a study like this, you become more and more aware of what a model courthouse is and what one is with a 19th century design,” Henthorn said.
Ideally, attorneys, judges, defendants and witnesses only meet in one place, the court facilities director said. “How do you get all the different participants there in a separate way? That’s why so many 19th century courthouses are outdated.”
The Hancock County Courthouse was built in 1930 or 1931, according to Ellsworth historian Mark Honey.
Before 1930, Hancock County had two courthouses side by side on Bridge Hill. The buildings are now Courthouse Gallery Fine Art.
Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane said the current courthouse on State Street doesn’t meet his department’s needs for training space and sufficient evidence storage.
“Our training room — when we have training for everyone, it’s pretty darn crowded and we don’t have the technology access that we need,” Kane said.
Kane said if a new courthouse were built at another site that would add to his jail budget. Currently, the Hancock County Jail is attached to the courthouse and inmates are brought to a courtroom on foot.
If courts were located elsewhere, the department would have to hire transportation staff.
A lack of parking is a problem at the courthouse, as is the size of the property.
There are abutters on either side of the courthouse complex.
Former legislator Ruth Foster, the owner of Ruth Foster’s Children’s Shop, owns a historic home, which the Hancock County Jail abuts.
On the other side of the courthouse is the old Hancock County Jail, which the Ellsworth Historical Society owns.
Kane asked if the state had any budget for the project.
The answer is not yet.
Funding has to be approved by the Maine Legislature and the Governor, Henthorn said.
“You start off doing a space study,” Henthorn said. “Part of the space study is to find different recommendations. There will be different options possibly for doing additions and then you come up with a rough idea for price.”
County Administrator Scott Adkins asked about a potential time frame. The county is in the middle of plans to expand the Hancock County Regional Communications Center, which is located in the courthouse building.
“My guess is the timeline is at least five years out,” Adkins said. “Are you thinking sooner than that?”
“I don’t know,” Henthorn replied. “The last ones came together sooner than that.”
RCC Director Bob Conary and Linnell also attended the meeting.
“It sounds like there’s openness from the county side to see what we come up with,” Henthorn said. “Our first thought is we always look to see if an addition to the building would work for the county and the judicial branch.”
Henthorn said they hoped to have a study to present by January or February 2020.
Carter, the architect, will be meeting with department heads in coming weeks.