It will soon be the old Flagler County Courthouse no more.
Monday afternoon, the Flagler County Commission agreed to cede the 86-year-old courthouse—one of the oldest and certainly stateliest buildings in the county—to Bunnell, which will have virtually full ownership of the older portion of the building and will turn it into its city hall. Bunnell, which has secured $1.5 million to refurbish the building, hopes to do so in time for the city’s centenary celebrations next year. The agreement ends five years of costly uncertainty for the old courthouse, and almost three years of negotiations and plans roller-coasting on a succession of hopes and disappointments.
No money will change hands, though the transaction isn’t quite free for either side.
At a joint meeting of their respective governments Monday, Bunnell and the county signed off on a mutual agreement drafted by the two panels’ administrations, though they still have to formally approve the agreement. The county is ceding only the older, 13,000 square-foot portion of the building, built in 1926, not the 36,000 square-foot annex built in 1982. The county is reserving the annex for a possible sheriff’s headquarters, if it can find the money to make the move.
But the conveyance of the old courthouse’s ownership to Bunnell, at no cost to Bunnell, is a coup for the small city—and a relief for the county: Bunnell’s government administration has been leeching off the county’s graces for almost four years, occupying county offices rent free in the county’s administration building, and holding its meetings in the government chambers usually reserved for county and school board business. Bunnell exiled itself from its own city hall in 2009 after heavy rains leaked through the old coquina building’s roof. That building is now the Bunnell Police Department’s home.
For the county, getting rid of the older portion of the courthouse is a financial advantage in some ways. The county has spent $1 million maintaining and repairing the old courthouse (including the annex) since vacating it in 2007, when court staff moved to its new digs next to the county administration building. The county is spending $75,000 a year just in basic maintenance. That cost won’t be erased: it’ll still have to spend money to maintain the annex. But it should be reduced considerably.
The three-page joint agreement with Bunnell is revealing in another way: the county was leery—to not say mistrustful—of handing the building to Bunnell without a series of conditions. Besides ensuring that the building may only be used for government purposes, the county is maintaining responsibility for “all interior spaces, to include sidewalks and parking areas,” prorating the cost of those repairs with the city. The county will also “be responsible for maintaining all building facades, not to include the Historic Courthouse roof, windows and doors. This will essentially include the brick, stone work and other historical, ornate features.”
That provision reflects several county commissioners’ and the Flagler County Historical Society’s concern to maintain the historic value and look of the building, although the society was conspicuously excluded from the talks that led to the deal. A plan two years ago that would have ensured a move of the society’s archives to the old courthouse was also absent from the new deal. The county will continue to mow the lawns around the entirety of the building, its old and newer portions.
“In lieu of the county giving the city the building at no cost,” the agreement also reads, “the county will handle the contracting and construction of improvements to ensure a similar quality and appearance throughout both buildings.” Meaning the annex and the old portion of the courthouse. “The county will also ensure both buildings are brought up to all current building codes for [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliance, fire safety, electrical, and other life safety measures. This will be done in conjunction with the city’s representatives similar to the way the Government Services Building was constructed, with constant input from the school board representatives.”
The administration building was an entirely joint project because it entailed joint occupancy under the same roof. The old courthouse and annex are, in fact, distinct buildings. Bunnell could have been responsible for code compliance just as it would be for any of its other buildings (if it had any significant ones to speak of). The county is choosing to maintain a level of control to ensure that the work is accomplished by its standards as opposed to Bunnell’s. The county is maintaining a share of the cost of insuring the structure, leaving Bunnell to bear just a little over quarter of the cost of insurance. That’s based on the square footage split between the two governments.
Those arrangements did not please Commissioner Nate McLaughlin, who got testy when he raised issues with the agreement.
“If there’s no deed, there’s no ownership. Plain and simple,” McLaughlin said. “If you want ownership, that’s not what you’re getting.”
“That’s not true,” Barbara Revels, who chairs the commission, said, as commissioner Alan Peterson joined her to counter McLaughlin’s view.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t speaking your opinion, I was speaking mine. Thank you,” McLaughlin shot back. “I respect your opinions. But that’s my opinion. I think it would be—what’s the word I’m looking for—I just don’t like the idea of saying to Flagler Beach and Palm Coast and the other municipalities that though we won’t help you with your city hall, we will help Bunnell with theirs. I think turning the whole property over, if our intent is to put the sheriff in the annex—that’s just my opinion—put the sheriff in the annex and we make that agreement with them that they’ll allow them to go in there. But for us to use the county tax dollars to maintain the grounds around another city hall, is just so foreign to me.”
But McLaughlin had no support from other commissioners. Among Bunnell City Commissioners, John Rogers and Elbert Tucker were all for taking full ownership of the building, but the panel wasn’t ready to talk about that until it met on its own later in the evening. And Revels said the full ownership idea had not been on the table.
“We have not discussed this as a board to take the whole courthouse,” Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson said. “What we have discussed are the finances to do the work.” The city secured a revolving $2.5 million loan from Intracoastal bank. It is devoting $1.5 million of that toward courthouse construction.
“Our banker’s here, the money is waiting,” Armando Martinez, the Bunnell city manager, said.
“This thing with the courthouse has been long enduring, and we are very, very close,” Robinson said later in the evening, at the end of her commission’s meeting. “So I’m really excited. Wouldn’t it be a neat thing if we could actually move all of our staff into the courthouse in next year’s hundred-year anniversary of the city of Bunnell. And there’s actually discussion about having a reenactment of the first commission meeting. We could do it in the courthouse. In the courtroom. Wouldn’t that be cool? In dress.”