Mayor rallies for current courthouse site

Although more than 18,000 residents had already voted and less than a week remained before the Nov. 4 general election, City of Milton officials held an Oct. 30 special meeting at Tiger Point Community Center to drum up support for the current courthouse site – one of three locations voters considered for a proposed new county courthouse.

Mayor Wesley Meiss said the city’s downtown economy is heavily dependent upon business generated from courthouse’s location within the county seat of Milton.

“A lot of businesses are wrapped up in this, and that’s going to impact our city if that is taken out,” Meiss said.

Meiss also said if voters approved the local option sales tax (LOST) to fund the courthouse and select the current courthouse site, the council agreed to return 50 percent of the city’s portion of the LOST, estimated at $1.875 million, back to the project.

“That makes downtown Milton the cheapest of the three (sites),” Meiss said.

James Young of Milton, who owns property adjacent to one of the other sites, argued parcels adjacent to the current site which would require acquisition were not factored into costs estimates. Young said that might keep downtown Milton from being the least expensive option.

Meiss argued even if land acquisition costs totaled $1 million, the current site would be less costly.

According to Santa Rosa County Property Appraiser’s Office records, those parcels tapped for acquisition have assessed values totaling roughly $80,000.

Meiss, a history teacher and past president of the Santa Rosa Historical Society, also noted the significance of historical structures in the downtown area.

“America is a teenager right now, and we’re just starting to figure out the correlation between history and architecture and culture,” he said.

Newly elected city councilwoman Ashley Lay pointed out other benefits associated with the location.

“I can tell you there’s room to grow,” Lay said, pointing out parcels that would provide opportunities for future expansion at the site.

Lay also noted that flooding is not an issue at the location.

“Did you know the courthouse has never flooded from the Blackwater River,” asked Lay, who noted the city established a grassroots task force to look into the matter.

Milton attorney Matthew Hargraves and other members of that task force have expressed frustration over Santa Rosa County’s exclusion of 322 existing parking spaces in county materials comparing the three ballot sites, calling the omission and refusal to update materials “misleading.”

County materials reflect 225 additional public parking sites for the current site compared to 500 new spaces for the other site options.

Navarre resident Ralph Agnew asked if the city had plans to turn free public parking areas into metered parking.

“The city has never had metered parking,” said City Planner Randy Jorgensen.

“I really can’t see that happening,” added Meiss.

Hargraves’ law partner and fellow task force member, Brad Johnson, argued against claims the current courthouse could not be occupied during adjacent construction of a new building.

“There are pilings sunk all the time,” Johnson said, pointing out construction in other cities.

Should another site be selected for the courthouse, the City of Milton has a memorandum of understanding with the county, providing the city first right of refusal for use of the current facility. “In its current state it would be a liability,” Jorgensen said, adding that the city would like to see the building restored.

Election Day is Nov. 4.

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