‘No courthouse in our neighborhood’: Plans for new Hancock County facility draw outcry

Ellsworth residents criticize the site on Surry Road, raising concerns about the amount of usable land and effect on local traffic.
A blue yard sign that reads no court house in our neighborhood.
A local group has formed opposing the location of the Hancock Judicial Center. Photo by Jacqueline Weaver.

A long-awaited plan by the Maine judicial branch to replace three old courthouses in the state with newer and more secure facilities has hit a snag in Hancock County. 

Local residents have raised numerous concerns about the proposed site of the $55 million Hancock County Judicial Center in Ellsworth, and made their opposition clear: The road leading to the site is peppered with blue-and-white signs proclaiming “NO COURTHOUSE in our NEIGHBORHOOD.” 

The judicial branch purchased the 17.9-acre property at 120 Surry Road in Ellsworth in March and hopes to build a 65,000-square-foot facility to replace the 1931 courthouse on State Street, about a mile away.

The old courthouse, the judicial branch says, has numerous safety and electrical issues, a lack of parking and other problems. 

But not everyone thinks this is a good idea. In late April, more than 100 people filled a courtroom in the State Street facility to say they agreed there’s a critical need for a new courthouse, but 120 Surry Road is not the place for it. 

Those opposed to the site say there is not enough land for a facility and parking area because only a small portion is suitable for development. They also have taken issue with how the courthouse will impact traffic.

The judicial branch has said it evaluated the site based on the information it had, and is considering residents’ concerns.

Local concerns 

The neighborhood around the proposed site is primarily residential, although there is a cafe, auto repair shop and lawyer’s office adjacent to the property. 

Teri Sargent Smith, a local real estate agent and member of the Surry Road Preservation Association — which formed in response to the courthouse building plan — said that area of Surry Road is designated a neighborhood zone by the city to protect existing residences. 

Sargent Smith, who owns a house close to the construction site, claims the state did not conduct a traffic study, have the property surveyed or conduct a storm mitigation study. 

Barbara Cardone, the director of legal affairs and public relations for the judicial branch, said the state did not have enough money to conduct all relevant tests ahead of the purchase. She didn’t specify which tests had been done. 

Lisa Larue, who lives down the road from the site, has concerns about how the courthouse will impact traffic. People will have to travel through Ellsworth, across the river, and up Bridge Hill, an intersection that has the highest crash rate in the city, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Larue said traffic already backs up along that stretch, which is not only a nuisance but could make it difficult for first responders to get through. 

“It could cost someone their house or their life,” she said. 

‘An untenable situation’

The Hancock facility is one of the three courthouses the state plans to overhaul, along with the Somerset Judicial Center in Skowhegan and the Androscoggin Judicial Center in Lewiston.

Amy Quinlan, the state court administrator, in February described the need for improvements while testifying for L.D. 2090, a bill authorizing $205 million for the renovations. The bill became law this month. 

In 1976, the legislature created a unified state court system with the judicial branch assuming responsibility for operations in all 16 counties. Funding was provided but not enough to cover facility needs.

As a result, the law required — in what was planned to be a temporary compromise — that the counties provide space for the state courts. 

“Over the years,” Quinlan said, “this arrangement has led to an untenable situation: Nineteenth-century buildings occupied in great part by the state courts but owned by the counties are in great need of modernization, and are falling into disrepair.”

She said there’s no longer any reason for district courts to be housed separately from superior courts, given changes to the appeal process and the criminal docket. Quinlan said it is now much more convenient and cost-effective to combine the courts into one building with one central clerk’s office.

“Having fewer separate buildings also means we need fewer judicial marshals to staff entry screening, and we have fewer buildings to maintain and heat,” she said. 

The judicial branch had 48 court facilities in 2000, but has reduced that figure to 31 through renovation, new construction and consolidation of buildings. This includes projects in Machias, Rockland, Houlton, Bangor, Dover-Foxcroft, Augusta, Belfast, South Paris and Biddeford. 

Over the next six years, the judicial branch is proposing to replace the Hancock County courthouse; renovate and add an addition to the district court building in Skowhegan so it can vacate the Somerset County courthouse; and renovate a building next to the district court in Lewiston so it can vacate the Androscoggin County courthouse in Auburn. 

Construction on the Hancock County Judicial Center is scheduled to start in July 2025, with the others to follow in 2026 and 2027. 

Questions about due diligence

The courthouse proposed for Surry Road is slated to have four courtrooms, a consolidated clerk’s office, at least eight conference rooms and plenty of parking: 125 spaces for the public and 33 for staff. The building will be fully accessible, and will have a prisoner holding area on each floor, as well as interview rooms for attorneys and clients next to each courtroom. 

But some have questioned whether there is really enough space on the property.

The Surry Road Preservation Association hired an Ellsworth land surveyor, Patrick Downey, to take a close look at the site. He said the Cushman Brook bisects the property and the state’s plan was to build between the brook and Surry Road. 

Downey said the state believes the site includes seven acres that can be developed, but he found the portion of land between the stream, road and southerly border to be 4.28 acres. When the 75-foot stream setback is factored in, he said, only 2.61 acres can be developed. 

“That is a big stretch from seven acres,” Downey said. 

Based on his analysis, the site would need to lose at least 50 parking spaces.  

“They are trying to do too much on an ever-decreasing size of usable area,” he said.

Downey said it appeared the judicial branch reversed the normal sequence of events in making a land purchase. The purchase and sale agreement should have hinged on satisfactory results of a survey, and engineering and water management studies, he said. 

“They bought the lot first and then are trying to do these things afterwards,” Downey said. 

Cardone, from the judicial branch, said some of the information in the Surry Road Preservation Association’s survey is incorrect, and contested the idea there isn’t enough buildable land on the property.

“There were a lot of accusations that we didn’t do our due diligence before we purchased,” she said. “That, we disagree with. We looked at 20 properties. We looked at as much information as we could possibly gather.”

She said the land was purchased based on existing surveys and other information, but did not specify which tests had been done. 

She said the judicial branch only had enough funding to buy the property and had to do its best with the information it could garner. Some of the additional work, she said, will have to wait until the bond is issued. 

“People said things should have been done before we bought the property. Maybe in a perfect world we could have done that,” Cardone said. “We don’t have the funds to go forward with developing the site plan and architectural plan until the bond is issued.” 

Some think that rather than go forward with the Surry Road site, the old courthouse on State Street should be renovated.

Stephen Shea, whose company E.L. Shea built the additions to the original courthouse at 50 State St., said he is convinced there’s a way to modify the current campus to address its problems through renovations, new construction and by acquiring nearby land for parking. 

Next steps

Sen. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) said her role has primarily been to help secure funding for the construction and then communicate constituent concerns to the judicial branch. 

“The judicial branch is reviewing the information that was shared and checking the points that were made,” she said. 

Grohoski said she is sympathetic to concerns, but the judicial branch explored several sites and the Surry Road property was the only one even remotely suitable. 

Cardone said the judicial branch has listened and is weighing the public’s reservations. 

“The next step is to decide what we are going to do, get a handle on what our options are, and whether some of the arguments and concerns are valid and can be worked around,” she said. 

She said there are steps the judicial branch still has to take before going through a formal planning board process with the city of Ellsworth. 

Cardone said the tenor of the public meeting in late April was “not impolite,” but certain people were there “looking for that exchange.” 

“They had their minds made up that the courthouse shouldn’t be there, for various reasons,” she said. “Some of it conflicted with information we had.”


Jacqueline Weaver

Jacqueline Weaver is a veteran journalist, including a decade of reporting on Hancock County for the Ellsworth American. She covered Jimmy Carter's campaign as a rookie reporter for United Press International, and later freelanced for the New York Times and Reuters, among others.
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