Washtenaw County Discusses the Future of Chelsea’s Courthouse and Regional Service Center


14A-3 District Courthouse in downtown Chelsea. Photo by Doug Marrin.

Chelsea’s courthouse is safe. And while a new western county service center isn’t exactly on the horizon, it may be just beyond the curvature of the earth.

Washtenaw County held a public listening session on Jan. 31 in Chelsea’s council chambers to discuss and hear what people had to say about the concept of a Western Washtenaw County Service Center.

The idea started when Washtenaw’s courts wanted to move its 14A-9 District Court out of its aging building in Chelsea to Saline with its other courts. Out of the pushback emerged the concept of building a county service center that might contain a court and other county services.

Andrew DeLeeuw, Director of Strategic Planning for Washtenaw County, led the public input meeting and began with some background.

The courthouse on the corner of Main and Park was designed in 1901 to be a bank, which it was until the late 1960s when Chelsea State Bank sold it to the county for two dollars. The condition was that it would remain a courthouse or other government building for the next 25 years.

Concerns over security and workspace in the old building in recent years prompted the courts to attempt to relocate the court to Saline. This created a little tug-o-war. While Washtenaw’s court system can determine where they want the court to be, the county controls the facilities, including location. In response to public feedback, the County Commissioners passed a resolution last year to keep Chelsea’s courthouse a courthouse for the foreseeable future.

“But that's not a long-term solution,” commented Chelsea Mayor Jane Pacheco at the meeting. “It's cost prohibitive to make it into what the court would like to see there. But for the time being, they've shored up some security concerns, and we're having a larger conversation in terms of space planning in general and looking at court services as a part of potentially part of a western service center.”

DeLeeuw explained that the county board would like to incorporate a western county service center into its master plan.

Regarding the master plan, DeLeeuw said, “One of the big things is making sure that we’ve got space suitable for all services provided by the county.”

One problem he sees with the current Chelsea courthouse, beyond security concerns, is its suitability regarding the cost of the building compared to the number of people using it. It’s not an efficient use of county funds.

DeLeeuw reported that the Commissioners asked him to present an initial plan early this year.

While it may sound like the county is moving quickly, DeLeeuw tempered this with, “Building projects take time. I don’t want anyone here to think there will be a new county building in the western county within a year or two. What we want to do is put in a realistic, feasible plan that sets the county on a certain path to make decisions about its buildings.”

DeLeeuw said they’re looking at a 10-year timeframe. “I certainly think the Western County Service Center is doable inside that timeframe.”

As far as a location for such a service center, DeLeeuw doesn’t know. His approach is to determine what services will be in the building, design a facility to house that, and then find a place.

County Commissioner for northwest Washtenaw, Jason Maciejewski, has been an ardent supporter of the service center concept from the beginning, seeing such a facility as a way to better engage residents with many things the county offers.

“In my mind, I envision things like running workshops with the soil conservation district, MSU Extension, having a place where the community can come and interact with some of these kinds of programs in addition to the more functional services,” said Maciejewski.

One attendee asked what determined “western Washtenaw.” While nobody could offer an official boundary line, Mayor Pacheco did comment that she always thought of Zeeb Rd. as the unofficial delineation.

When asked which services should be in the service center, the group’s idea revolved around a rotation of services that could be found at the location on certain days.

“I think the county is being very deliberate about the idea of wanting to interact with the community on this and wanting to partner and really collaborate to come up with something functional and beneficial that people will actually use,” said Maciejewski. “To better understand what those services are, the more voices we hear from, the better.”

As far as a timeline, there is none. DeLeeuw noted that a lot more discussion must occur with many people.

“My sense is (the Board of Commissioners) would rather have it done right and done well rather than come on time,” said DeLeeuw.

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