Courthouse Expansion Moves Forward
November 16, 2023 by Amy Patterson

Plans Approved by Chardon Planning Commission

ThenDesign Architecture representatives unveiled details Nov. 7 for the greatly-anticipated remodel and expansion of the historic courthouse on Chardon Square.

ThenDesign Architecture representatives unveiled details Nov. 7 for the greatly-anticipated remodel and expansion of the historic courthouse on Chardon Square.

The stirring of ghosts of courthouses past could be felt as TDA revealed plans incorporating both the structure’s history and much-needed upgrades during the Chardon Planning Commission meeting.

The square’s first courthouse had been a log cabin, which was originally Capt. Edward Paine Jr.’s temporary home in 1812, according to the city’s historical records.

A large columned courthouse was built in the late 1820s, but destroyed in the Great Fire of Chardon in the summer of 1868. Construction on a new one began after the fire and the building was opened in 1870.

TDA’s nearly 22,000-square-foot addition would more than double the building’s size. Thoughtful details intended to tie the new addition to the original courthouse include stone panels sourced from the same quarry used in 1868.

Both Geauga County Court of Common Pleas Judge David Ondrey and Judge Carolyn Paschke said the current layout of the courthouse is not working, TDA Senior Project Manager Brad Gellert told the planning commission last Tuesday.

“One of the key factors driving this was to increase the security for the staff and the judges,” he said, adding court standards set by the state are not met by the current building.

“You should have a sallyport, you should have secure parking, secure elevators for prisoner transport (and) an area for screening of both visitors and staff,” he said.

Because space for parking is limited by its position on the square, the building needs secure entryways on both its east and west sides, Gellert said.

Initially, TDA proposed a smaller addition, but Gellert said it did not address the main concerns for both judges, which include having their staff on one floor and decreasing public foot traffic in sensitive areas of the building.

“Right now, the probation office is in the basement and the clerk of courts is on the third floor,” Gellert said. “Those are the two offices that get the most traffic. They wanted to have both of those offices right off the ground floor, so all those visitors can be immediately served and not go up through the building unnecessarily.”

Hinting at decades of back-and-forth on the expansion of the historic building, Gellert said a scaled-down design initially proposed for the expansion was based on updates proposed to the county 20 years ago.

“After several months of working on variants of this (floorplan), Judge Paschke came to us and said, ‘This doesn’t work for us. We need a bigger building,'” he said.

In May 2022, Geauga County Commissioners agreed to spend a minimum of $15 million to renovate the building after a mediation process over a lawsuit filed by the city in 2020. The court ordered commissioners to break ground on the project before Dec. 31, 2023.

As part of the settlement, the city agreed to contribute 10% of the cost of the project — capped at $2 million — toward the public infrastructure, site work and beautification of the square involved with the expansion.

Security Concerns

Ondrey told planning commission he and Paschke were extremely impressed with the initial concept plan, but necessary changes became apparent after discussing the court’s security needs.

“We came to realize we were shortchanging ourselves seriously if we maintained that footprint that the original concept had,” he said.

Ondrey referenced the 2017 shooting of Jefferson County Judge Joseph Bruzzese Jr. outside of a courthouse in Steubenville in his remarks.

“I think the shooter ended up being shot himself by someone working for the court, but the point is, we’re lagging way behind other courthouses in our security,” Ondrey said. “So, that was a critical problem that the original concept didn’t address.”

Ondrey said the lack of conference rooms was also an issue, and while it may sound minor, the limited space in the current courthouse forces private discussions into public hallways.

“One of our thoughts when we were working with the original concept was that we were putting ourselves in a situation where we were going to have outgrown the building before we even moved in,” Paschke said. “We didn’t think that was a responsible use of the public funds.”

There has been a surge in cases involving mental health issues across the country, making security issues even more important for court staff, she added.

In response to the judges’ feedback, TDA added a nine-foot security fence, as well as a sallyport for prisoner drop-off and ambulance pickup to its proposed plans. The fence, which would conceal court staff parking, would close off the northeast corner of the square.

Planning commission member Colin Wantz asked Paschke and Ondrey their preference on the fence’s exterior finish and Ondrey said while an earlier suggestion of bulletproof glass could lighten the look of the fence, it would not work.

“What you’re going to be looking at isn’t going to be pretty. It’s going to be vehicles (and) a garage door … for the sallyport, so I’m not certain that that really makes it any more pedestrian friendly,” Ondrey said.

Planning commission Vice Chair Mary Jo Stark asked if a stamp or relief design could be incorporated into stone on the building — perhaps in the shape of a maple leaf — to add interest to the building. Commissioner Jim Dvorak said while it’s possible, every added detail is an expense.

“Just like the City of Chardon, we don’t have unlimited funds,” Dvorak said. “We’ll try to do the best we can.”

‘A Beautiful Building’

City Architect Dominic Durante said Chardon officials are very pleased the courthouse is staying on the square, but with an addition more than twice the size of the original building, he urged TDA to work on making the building and security wall lighter and less imposing — especially for pedestrians.

“You’re going to be bringing this addition much closer to the sidewalk and so what we’d like to see is more ways of articulating this larger shape to make it feel smaller and to make it feel lighter,” he said.

Planning commission Chair Andy Blackley, also a member of Chardon City Council, said the city and county are very close to a “meeting of the minds” on the concept plans.

“We’re extremely appreciative of the fact that (the) county is building this building. And we — speaking for myself as chairman of the planning commission and as a city councilman — we are dedicated to seeing that this project is successful and will happen,” he said. “So, there’s no question about that.”

Previous plans were a work in progress and lacking substantial detail, Blackley said, adding parts of the current plan indicate bid alternates would be chosen at a later date.

“That takes the city’s architectural review out of the process,” Blackley said. “Are we going to be allowed to have any say in which of those bid alternates are eventually chosen? I would hope that would be the case.”

Planning commission members questioned TDA representatives over details including the final finish on the 9-foot security fence. Dvorak, at the close of the meeting, put the issue to rest on behalf of the county.

“In the spirit of compromise, and you know, we want to do the best for Chardon city square (as the) county seat, … we’re gonna go with the ultimate deluxe stone wall,” Dvorak said, adding the cost will be about $650,000 for the upgrade.

The county will also pay for a new sidewalk on the east side of the courthouse, he said.

“So, that’s two things,” Dvorak said.

In reference to earlier comments from Blackley regarding decorative stone panels under windows on the addition, Dvorak, who mentioned his history working in the masonry field, said he likes the design.

“As far as the windows go, (the addition is) designed from the inside out based on the needs of the judges,” he said, adding the panel under each window will protrude to the same degree as the windows.

“So ,when someone’s driving around the square … they’re gonna say, ‘What a beautiful building,’” Dvorak said. “I really believe that this architectural design will complement the existing courthouse, the neighborhood and everything else.”