CHRISTIANSBURG — Montgomery County will raze downtown Christiansburg’s Phlegar building, but will keep the adjacent structure that once housed the sheriff’s office as part of a nearly $1.5 million plan to relocate the magistrate’s and court services offices.
The fate of the two historic structures off East Main and South Franklin streets was decided Monday night by the county’s board of supervisors, which voted 6-1 in favor of the plan to move the magistrate’s and court services into the old sheriff’s office.
Supervisor Sara Bohn, who cast the only opposing vote, unsuccessfully requested that the board delay a decision a little longer to see if additional funds existed to potentially cover a renovation of the Phlegar building.
Some supervisors described their decision as a compromise aimed at selecting a cost-effective plan while also fulfilling at least some of the recent calls to engage in historic preservation.
“I think there is a need for a purpose built building to serve court services and the magistrate’s office,” said board Vice Chairwoman April DeMotts. But preserving the old sheriff’s office “accomplishes some good in a very difficult decision to make,” DeMotts said.
County officials had long considered a new home for the magistrate’s and court services, but were until recent weeks still undecided about whether they would refurbish the old sheriff’s office to house those functions or demolish the building and build a new facility in its place.
Due to health and safety challenges, the county had long planned to automatically demolish the Phlegar building as part of the magistrate’s and court services relocation. A small downtown Christiansburg collective, however, pressed the county earlier this year to try to save both that structure and the old sheriff’s office.
In fact, Bob Poff, a preservation supporter and the owner of the property that houses Antiques on Main and the Mockingbird Cafe & Bakery, provided just under $6,000 to pay for an assessment of the Phlegar building.
“The majority of what was said was positive,” Poff said, referring to the assessment performed by local firm HDH Associates.
The assessment, Poff said, found that the Phlegar building had a “good foundation” and no excessive rot. He also told supervisors that his experience with historic properties suggests that the necessary brick work would likely fall in $7,500 range, which he described as a non-excessive amount.
Another reason some supervisors have given for demolishing the Phlegar building is the fact that there are no immediate purposes in the works for the structure. Poff, however, said that shouldn’t be a deterrent.
“While you may not see a need for the building today, there most likely will be one in the future,” he said. “I urge you to not make an irreversible decision.”
Despite Poff telling the board that the assessment provided some encouraging findings, supervisors voiced concerns about the potential cost of a renovation and the possible consequences of prolonging the delay on the magistrate’s and court services project.
Complicating the matter are recently discovered issues with the old sheriff’s office. Significant leaks have been found in the building’s main roof, which now needs to be replaced as opposed to just repaired, according to engineering and architectural firm Thompson & Litton.
Thompson & Litton has also determined that a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system is needed.
Those issues — the roof and need for new HVAC system — raised the cost of renovating the old sheriff’s office from a previous estimate of approximately $1.3 million to just under $1.5 million.
Some supervisors, after being told about those challenges, voiced concerns about the costs of the renovation going up even more if the project continued to be delayed.
“I want to save the old sheriff’s office for various reasons. If we can save money and preserve history, that makes sense,” said Supervisor Chris Tuck.
Tuck, however, said the county needs to move quickly and “preserve the roof before there is any more damage.”
Supervisors Chairman Todd King echoed Tuck’s point.
“I think we need to do it tonight. Because if we’re going to save the old sheriff’s office, we’re going to have to do something with the roof,” King said. “My job to the citizens is to look over taxpayers’ money. I have to answer to them.”
Vacant since 2013, the Phlegar building’s past occupants included former Secretary of the Navy William Ballard Preston and former Virginia Supreme Court Justice Waller Staples.
The structure’s informal name comes from attorney Archer Phlegar, who served as county commonwealth’s attorney before eventually becoming a state Supreme Court justice at the turn of the 20th century.
Also called the courthouse annex and the old clerk’s office, the Phlegar building’s health and safety challenges include the existence of black mold, lead and asbestos.
The Phlegar building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.
The old sheriff’s office was built during the 1870s, about a century before it housed the local law enforcement agency. The structure also served as a law office earlier in its history and is informally referred to as the Taylor building in honor of former Virginia Attorney General James C. Taylor.
Building an entirely new facility for the magistrate’s and court services was projected to cost $1.9 million — more than a renovation — but county staff had said that a new building, among other advantages, would help save on maintenance expenses in the future.
The magistrate’s office is where the initial decision is made to either set bail for an arrestee or require them to wait behind bars for their court date.
Court services, currently located on the corner of Radford Road and Depot Street, is where child and spousal support paperwork is filed.
The magistrate’s current location in a county-rented facility on Franklin has prompted some officials — primarily Sheriff Hank Partin — to raise concerns over the years about the possibility of incidents such as prisoner escapes and ambushes on arresting officers.
Partin has argued that the chances of those incidents would be significantly reduced if the magistrate’s office was closer to the jail, which shares a block with the old sheriff’s office.