Prodded by a superior court judge, the Dukes County commission this week approved funds to restore wheelchair access to the courthouse and agreed to explore options for addressing the deplorable condition of the county-owned Edgartown building.

The Hon. Gary A. Nickerson took the unusual step of appearing at a public hearing on county budget priorities during the commission’s regular meeting Wednesday. He asked the county to begin a dialogue on space issues at the courthouse, and about bringing the building into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The only wheelchair ramp into the building is dilapidated and slippery, while the wheelchair lift that provides the only disabled access to the second floor courtroom has been broken for months. Lack of access to the courthouse was raised in a letter to the Gazette last month from Chilmark resident Dianne Holt; earlier in the year, a fire inspection turned up numerous safety issues in the building, which dates to 1858.

The Hon. Gary Nickerson: "I think there are grave constitutional issues." — Steve Myrick

“We’ve really outgrown the facility,” Judge Nickerson said. “It doesn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, woefully so. Can we talk about improvement, can we talk about better space, can we get that dialogue going?”

The judge said he has begun informal discussions about options for the courthouse with administrators of the trial court system. He has scheduled a courthouse tour and discussion with two top administrators for Oct. 23. Statewide court administrator Jon Williams and the Hon. Paula Carey, chief justice of the trial court, will travel to the Island for  firsthand assessment of the building.

“I thing there are grave state constitutional issues,” Judge Nickerson said. “I think its fundamental that this county should have every branch of the trial court available to it conveniently.”

Following the public hearing, county commissioners agreed to form a subcommittee to look into building options. They also approved expenditures from their capital improvements fund totaling $210,000. The money will pay for replacing the exterior wheelchair ramp and the interior wheelchair lift, as well as install air conditioning in the courtroom.

If approved by the county advisory board, work can begin on those projects immediately, according to county manager Martina Thornton.

Judge Nickerson said he did not see construction of a new courthouse as an option because of political and budgetary constraints in state government, but he noted three options that have been circulating among court and county officials.

At budget hearing, county commission voted to set aside money for repairs to crumbling Edgartown courthouse. — Steve Myrick

The first, he said, was for the state to rent space on the Island, outside of the courthouse, to accommodate court functions.

The second was for the state to take over ownership of the courthouse. He said that option has been raised by Island officials, but not discussed at the state level. A draft statewide capital improvement report prepared by the state Trial Court, however, suggests that the state consider taking over ownership of the 19 courthouses statewide that are still owned by their respective counties.

The third option was to do nothing, and allow the county to continue as the body responsible for care and maintenance of the building.

Edgartown district court clerk-magistrate Liza Williamson also attended the meeting.

“The first priority that I see is we need to become ADA compliant, just so people can get upstairs,” said Ms. Williamson. “It’s terrible, and it’s not fair. We literally are not giving people access to justice.”

Ms. Williamson also said she wanted to debunk the idea that if the state were to take over the courthouse, it might decide to close or consolidate the courts in another jurisdiction.

“That will never happen,” said Ms. Williamson. “By statute, it’s mandated that each county have a district court in that county. They would not and cannot ever move the courthouse off this Island.”