Two years after 97 out of 100 voters approved a levy to build a new courthouse, Flagler County commissioners declared July 28, 1927 a local holiday and urged all local residents (population: 2,442) to pack up a picnic basket and spend the day in Bunnell for the dedication of the new building. That Christmas, back when church and state issues didn’t concern Bunnell much, a 20-foot Christmas tree went up on the courthouse lawn, and 500 people gathered there the evening of December 23 to celebrate the occasion.
The courthouse and its additions served the county for 80 years (including a February 1974 firebombing by three teenagers retaliating against the arrest of a black youth on a minor traffic charge). In 2007, the 60,000-square-foot courthouse and its additions, creaking and cracking at the seams, was abandoned when judges and constitutional officers moved to their new Versailles: The new $65 million government complex down the road, including a 136,426- square-foot courthouse and a 125,000-square-foot government building.
Since then, local governments and constitutional officers have been unable to agree about what to do next with the thing.
They’ll try again today at 9 a.m. (Emergency Operations Center: 769 E. Moody Blvd E.O.C., Bldg. 3), when the County Commission holds a special meeting to discuss the old building’s fate.
All eyes are on Sheriff Don Fleming, who has serious space needs (and some money). But he’s not that interested in moving to the old courthouse. “I don’t know what our intentions are at this point,” Fleming said, noting that the old courthouse isn’t in shape for his operations. “There’s a lot of issues, building wise and everything else, so we’re kind of in a holding pattern at this point. We’re probably not going to make any move over there.”
Aside from its headquarters on Justice Lane on the outskirts of Bunnell, adjacent to the county jail, the sheriff has two substations (one in palm Coast, one in the Hammocks on the Barrier Island), and a criminal investigations office near Town Center. Had Fleming been around when the government complex was planned in the early part of the previous decade, he said he’d have pushed to have the Sheriff’s Office be part of the complex. Today, he’s not ready to shell out the money out of the sheriff’s operations to fix up the old courthouse.
That may be good news for Bunnell, whose police station and government offices are almost homeless: the police station is in a trailer, the city’s administration is using space in the government complex, the city’s utility and planning departments are in a strip mall on U.S. Route 1.
We’d like to move our city hall somewhere in the courthouse,” Bunnell City Manager Armando Martinez said. “We believe that as a constitutional officer, the sheriff should have the first option.” Bunnell thought about building a new building of its own, but current financial stresses make that unlikely. The old courthouse is the best option—if Bunnell can find the money to repair it.
In January, a memo circulating among Bunnell city commissioners outlined a plan that would give the sheriff some 28,000 square feet in the three-story building, and the Bunnell city government 8,700 square feet on the first floor.
The other constitutional offices aren’t interested in the old courthouse, including the school board, the clerk of court, the supervisor of elections, the tax collector and the property appraiser, whose offices are in the new government building. James Gardner, the property appraiser, says if he needs to expand (not an immediate possibility), he’d be most likely to expand next to Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston’s satellite office in Palm Coast on Old Kings Road, in the Staples shopping center.
Clerk of Court Gail Wadsworth sees the building as the county’s historic headquarters and repository for the courthouse’s old records, including genealogical and land records. “What we wanted to do,” Wadsworth said, “was leave those hundreds of books there and open that one to three mornings a week as a library of history, for Flagler county citizens or anybody, anybody who wants to know who they were, who was there.”
That collection is currently housed in the new courthouse. “Yes you can come in and look at things, yes you can request things, in records management, but you can’t walk into a room full of books and have a guided tour of those books as easily,” Wadsworth said. “I want to reinvent that.”
The use of parts the old courthouse as the county’s historic museum and a library annex appeals to Bill Ryan, the Flagler County historian and member of the Flagler County Historical Society. Ryan says the society’s museum annex across the street is currently the county’s most important repository of historic documents (next to the courthouse’s legal records). But it needs a better home.
In 2007, the County Commission followed up on a study about the building that recommended fixing the roof and making structural improvements.