Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series highlighting efforts by citizens and local governments to protect their local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.
For nearly a 100 years, the Accomack County Courthouse had been the focus of civic life in the tiny town of Accomac on Virginia's Eastern Shore. With a population of less than 500, the town has never been a bustling metropolis, and many of its businesses - a "lawyers row" of attorneys offices - relate to the courthouse.
But in what may have been a case of unintended consequences, a decision by the General Assembly threatened the economic vitality and historic character of the town. The Assembly required that the District Court and the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court - which had been handled by a single judge - be divided among two judges. The building, already home to a Circuit Court as well, was suddenly becoming crowded.
"All the judges approached me shortly after the third judge was seated. They said we've got to have more space," said Arthur Fisher, Accomack County administrator.
County officials turned their attention to a 35-acre parcel about a mile away from downtown Accomac on the other side of busy Route 13, which a developer was willing to donate.
At first, the lack of space in Accomac and the lure of free land seemed an ideal combination. But the citizens of Accomac saw it differently: They feared the move would cut the heart out of the town.
"We felt like it would hurt the whole downtown area," said Rob Leatherbury, an Accomac accountant who chaired a special committee that was organized to deal with the issue. "There are a number of empty buildings in town right now, and we were afraid if the court and the court-support services were to go out of town, it would just expand; the attorneys would move out of town, there would be more empty buildings, and property values would probably drop, etc."
The issue of how communities develop surfaced the previous summer when Virginia's two Eastern Shore counties - Accomack and Northampton - participated in a Countryside Stewardship Exchange in the Chesapeake Bay Region. The exchanges, which are held periodically in the United States, Canada and Europe, bring a team of experts from other nations and other parts of the country to an area for a week to explore planning, economic development and natural resource protection issues.
In its final report, the team noted that the "small town and rural character" of the two counties made it a "special place" that should be preserved. Among other things, the exchange team recommended that development be steered toward town centers to help preserve community character and stem sprawl.
The county's imminent plan to move two of the three courts out of town came up during a follow-up meeting to the exchange. As a result, Shari Wilson of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, who coordinated the 1994 exchange, sought someone who was willing to conduct a design "charrette" to come up with options for keeping the courthouse in town. Architects use charettes - named for an old French educational practice in which students rushed completed work to school in a cart, or "charrette," to meet a deadline - as an intensive design process to analyze a design problem and offer a solution in a short period of time.
"I called a lot of architects and schools of architecture trying to find someone who would be interested in doing this," Wilson said. Finally, she got in touch with Peter Waldman, chair of the Department of Architecture in the University of Virginia's School of Architecture, who was enthusiastic about the idea.
With the town of Accomac sponsoring the daylong event, the team of faculty and graduate students visited the site Sept. 16. The team walked the area, reviewed aerial photographs and listened to county and town officials as well as residents.
"There were a lot of statements made that we need to build on the current quality of the town and invest in the town and not just go out and build along the highway," said Jim McGowan, director of planning for the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission. "It's the historical county seat that's at least 200 years old, and people want to maintain that."
By the end of the day, the design team emerged with a three-dimensional model of a 6,500-square-foot general district court building that would be built in an adjacent parking lot. The lost parking spaces would be made up through the removal of a nearby deteriorating building. Keeping the courts in town reduced the size of the building that was needed and was expected to cut the overall construction costs.
While the final plan may change - there may be two or three small buildings instead of one 6,500-square-foot structure - the architects were able to show that all three courts could stay in town, and, with a design that would complement the existing courthouse.
As a result of the charrette, the Accomack County Board of Supervisors voted to keep the courts in town.
"I don't think anyone really had set their sights on abandoning the middle of Accomac, or taking large parts of its operation out of there, it's just that they couldn't quite see how they could work it out," said charrette participant Dan Bluestone, director of preservation in the School of Architecture. "And on the face of it, someone offering free land is tempting. What we were able to show was that the offer of free land ends up disrupting - and in the final analysis costing - the town more than trying to work with what they have in the center of town.
"This is in small form what's been going on in towns and cities across the country," Bluestone said. "We really shouldn't be abandoning built-up sites and sprawling in a somewhat ruinous fashion out on unbuilt sites when there are ways of continuing to use the building and landscapes and established infrastructure."
The issue, he said, also raises questions about the place of civic institutions in communities. "At a certain level, one of the big issues here is whether or not a courthouse belongs out on a strip, sandwiched somewhere between the local version of an Exxon and a Burger King."
It is a question that Bluestone said other counties will soon face. In what may be another case of unintended consequences, Bluestone said recent state guidelines "basically seal the doom of every 19th century courthouse in Virginia" by setting standards such as having separate entrances for judges so they can enter and leave inconspicuously.
"That might make sense in a large, anonymous metropolitan center," Bluestone said, "but it doesn't make any sense at all in a county of 10,000-20,000 people where everyone knows the judge, and the judge is a member of the community."
In many other counties, Bluestone does not expect the outcome to be as positive as the case in Accomac.
In Accomac, the difference was made because the town people wanted to keep a civic place in their community. When the issue came up to the county board, nearly 80 people showed up for the meeting, almost all of them supportive of keeping the courts in town.
"When you look at the whole thing, what happened was the local town people got behind it and that really made all the difference," Leatherbury said. "Because if the town people hadn't said anything, I'm sure those courts would be on their way out of town."