Members of the Johnson County Commission are leaning toward a plan that calls for tearing down the existing courthouse in downtown Olathe and building a new one on land just to the north.
Commissioners voted Thursday to pursue a plan for a 28-courtroom courthouse that would be located across Santa Fe Street from the existing building, between Kansas Avenue and Cherry Street. Demolition of the existing courthouse would extend the open space between Santa Fe and the county administration building to the south.
The plan was one of four options the commission has been considering this fall. But after an examination of the pros and cons of other plans, five of the seven commissioners expressed their preference for replacing the courthouse, rather than building an annex. They asked SFS Architecture for a more detailed mock-up of the single building plan. Commissioner John Toplikar voted no and Michael Ashcraft abstained.
The courthouse, which dates to 1951 and has about 400,000 visitors a year, has been an unsolved problem for more than a decade. Its issues include inefficient and costly mechanical systems, inaccessibility to the disabled in all but a few rooms, a hard-to-follow floor plan and a lack of separation between visitors, court officials and inmates. Studies also say that the county’s growth will require more space for court hearings in the future.
The courthouse has been discussed but not acted upon for years. However commissioners this year have vowed to act quickly. Their timeline calls for another meeting Dec. 17 with more specifics on the building and funding options and a final decision in January.
One reason is the lack of wheelchair accessibility in courtrooms, said Commissioner Steve Klika. “It could take one single lawsuit and all bets are off,” he said.
The existing courthouse has 23 courtrooms. The latest estimates are that 28 are needed to keep up with the growing population.
To meet those needs, commissioners had asked for information on a 28-courtroom building and a 12-courtroom building, each on two different sites in the area near the existing courthouse and jail. The smaller building would supplement the existing courthouse, rather than replace it.
One primary problem with the smaller building plan was that it would continue the expense of repairing the old courthouse. The 12-courtroom annex would give the county too much space, meaning that some of the existing courthouse would go unused, yet still have to be maintained. Renovations and security updates to the old building are estimated at $43 million over the next seven years.
Two possible locations were proposed for each building size. Besides the block north of Santa Fe, the commission considered building on the open area between the courthouse and the county administration building.
However there were some problems with that location. In both instances, it increased the distance for inmates from the county jail to court. Also, the larger building would be almost twice as tall as the administration building, looming in close proximity to the county offices and blocking windows on their north side.
The preferred location for a new courthouse is not vacant. A brick building owned by the city of Olathe sits at 100 W. Santa Fe St. There are also two houses on that block that are not owned by the city.
Olathe officials will wait to comment until they see a more developed plan, said Erin Vader, city spokewoman. She said city officials are interested in working with the county so the courthouse can remain in downtown Olathe, but did not say whether the city would give the property to the county free of charge, as some county staff have suggested.
Roxie Hammill: email@example.com