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Debate continues over fate of old jail building

December 13, 2002|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - The ongoing controversy over an effort to tear down the old Jefferson County Jail continued Thursday when two lawyers gave different interpretations of how county officials can proceed after a state Supreme Court ruling on the demolition.

The Jefferson County Commissioners, who want to raze the jail at the corner of George and Liberty streets and erect new court offices, asked Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Michael D. Thompson to brief them Thursday morning on the state Supreme Court of Appeals ruling.

The ruling stems from an appeal filed by Carol Gallant and Jim Whipple in response to a ruling by Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Thomas W. Steptoe Jr.

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Steptoe ruled the commissioners could tear down the jail and avoid a state requirement to conduct a historical review of the building.

The county could avoid the review because of a state law passed after the commission's decision to tear down the jail, which freed county commissions from the requirement, Steptoe said.

The commissioners have said they interpret the Supreme Court ruling as saying they can proceed with their planned demolition of the jail.

To proceed, the commissioners will have to take another vote on the demolition, Commissioner James G. Knode said shortly after the ruling.

Although Thompson said Thursday the Supreme Court ruled the new law freeing county commissions from conducting a historical review cannot be retroactively applied to the commissioners' decision, he believes the commissioners can take another vote on the issue.

If the commissioners vote again on the demolition of the jail, they would not have to conduct a historical review since the new law is in place, Thompson said.

Clarksburg attorney Tom Michael, who is representing Gallant and Whipple, said in a telephone interview he does not believe the commissioners can make the same decision over again and avoid the historical review process.

Michael said if the commissioners took such a course, it would "not go over well if any court took a look at it."

"I don't know why they are being so stubborn over this," said Michael, adding that the commissioners could have torn the jail down by now, even with a historical review.

Michael said conducting a historical review does not mean the commissioners would not be able to tear down the jail.

Under the historical review, officials with the state Department of Culture and History would look at the building and consider any possible uses for the building. Then the commissioners would be required to consult with Department of Culture and History officials about possible new uses of the building, Michael said.

Regardless of what comes out of the discussions, the commissioners can still tear the jail down, Michael said.

Michael sent a letter to Thompson outlining his feelings about the Supreme Court ruling.

"I do not believe that the Commission can evade this mandate from the Supreme Court by merely voting anew to ratify its previous decision. My clients will vigorously oppose any such maneuvering by the commission," Michael told Thompson.

The current commissioners have said they do not know if there is enough time left in the year for them to vote on the demolition.

Thompson told the commissioners that a Supreme Court decision does not become effective for 30 days.

That means the ruling on the jail would become effective on Dec. 27, the commissioners said.

Commissioner Jane Tabb said the issue has been placed on the Dec. 30 meeting agenda. Tabb would not say whether she thinks there will be a vote on the demolition.

Newly elected commissioner Greg Corliss, who is interested in saving the jail, has said he would ask the current commissioners to defer any action on the issue until the new commission takes office.

Corliss said he believes the question of whether the jail should be torn down should be left to the commissioners who will take office at the beginning of the new year since they are the ones who will deal with the issue.

Corliss and Commissioner-elect Rusty Morgan will take their seats on the commission in January.

Gallant and Whipple say the jail at the corner of Liberty and George Streets should be saved because it has historical significance, namely a treason trial held there for a United Mine Workers official in 1922.

Gallant and Whipple also believe the jail should be saved because it is on the National Register of Historic Places and because tearing it down and replacing it with modern court offices would not fit with a downtown revitalization the city of Charles Town is proposing.

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