By Stephen Smoot
If you try to build it, they will come – “they” meaning arcane regulations and bureaucrats harassing the project every step of the way.
Surprisingly, the State of West Virginia makes construction related to county courthouses one of the most difficult, complicated, and time-consuming processes possible for such an endeavor.
Karen Pitsenbarger, Pendelton County administrator, explained that “the need of an annex was discussed and preliminary work started around 1994 and then revisited in 2013.” In both cases, the county commission determined that the time and expense did not make the project worthwhile and it was “put on a shelf.”
Meanwhile, space issues continued to bedevil elected officials and county staff alike. A later commission, composed of Gene McConnell, Carole Hartman, and Carl Hevener, “decided that it had become necessary to provide space for the Supreme Court while also addressing the lack of space and storage needed for county offices,” Pitsenbarger said. She went on to explain that “we decided to go ahead with the process since the price would only go up as time went on.”
Despite digital storage options expanding in recent decades, Pitsenbarger said, “It is necessary to keep hard copies of certain data forever . . . we still have large physical space needs.”
The county explored both loan and grant options to pay for the expansion. Money for the project came from a United States Department of Agriculture loan and U.S. Senator Joe Manchin’s congressionally directed spending funds.
Pitsenbarger explained the steps taken during the past year to prepare for the annex construction. First, the county commission met with the building commission to discuss obtaining a loan. “We then started the process of getting an architect/engineer and getting plans and pricing, she said.”
The county started with preparatory projects to get the structure ready for expansion. Last fall, a new handicap ramp was built to provide “one-point entry.” When detector equipment arrives later this month, the side door will be the only public entrance to the facility.
At the same time, the county commission and administrator worked for months to secure a contractor to remove the old fuel tank and replace it with a new model in a different location. The county must also move the existing generator to a new location.
Because the courthouse is officially recognized as a significant historical structure, the county consulted with the State Historical Preservation Office and obtained approval for construction of the annex. Any additions, including the handicap ramp, cannot detract from the historical aesthetic of the building.
Then came the hard part.
Pitsenbarger explained that “the biggest challenge so far has been getting approval from the West Virginia State Supreme Court of Appeals. The court established numerous regulations concerning which offices are used for what purpose, as well as their sizes and that of waiting rooms. They use a ‘one size fits all’ model, whether the county be Berkeley and Kanawha or Pendleton and Webster.”
That approach by the state has run against the realities of what Pendleton County can do with the space and money at hand.
“There are several committees that need to review and approve the plans and that’s a long process,” Pitsenbarger explained. The process often involves phone calls that last for hours as committee members and county officials go over the most minor of details related to the new project.
She praised county elected officials, including the current commission, for their support and cooperation with the process.
“We hope to soon get the plans approved by the State Supreme Court,” Pitsenbarger said, adding that “then we can put the project out to bid and hopefully break ground this year.”
The county estimates two years to finish construction, but “obviously this is a moving target.”