Town of Louisa officials rejected a proposal to move the voting registrar’s office to a building the county owns in a residential neighborhood.
The town council’s 5-0 vote followed a joint public hearing on Nov. 17 with the town planning commission, which recommended against the county’s plans. Ten residents spoke at the hearing or submitted written comments in opposition, including some who live near the Henson Building on West Street and others who have participated in community programs there.
The county proposed to consolidate the registrar’s office and election equipment, currently located in the county office building on Woolfolk Avenue and the Ogg Building on West Main Street, respectively. Jeff Ferrel, assistant county administrator, said County Registrar Cris Watkins and the Louisa Electoral Board have looked for several years for a single location because it would be more secure and efficient.
Town Councilor Bud Dulaney said he was sympathetic to the county’s needs, but that West Street is the wrong place.
“I’m not sure it makes sense to move to a remote location,” he said.
County officials were anxious to get approval to renovate the Henson Building using CARES Act funding from the federal government, which must be used by the end of December.
The building, constructed for use by the Girl Scouts in the 1950s, became a county property in 1978. The Girl Scouts have continued to use it, as have other community groups. But Ferrel said the county is spending too much money to maintain the building, given its limited daily use.
Neither county nor town officials could locate a copy of a special permit that allows the current use of the building. Since it is in an area zoned for residential, the county needs a new permit for any new use.
Several residents commented that the Henson Building has hardwood floors and a fireplace, elements that make it great for classes and community meetings and that would be lost if the space is converted to office use. Ferrel said the building would be renovated using portable office dividers, so that the space could possibly be converted back to its historical use in the future.
Margaret-Anne Molina, who teaches some exercise classes in the Henson Building and whose house abuts the building’s parking lot, said she was skeptical that would ever happen. She said it reminded her of how the health department displaced the county’s skate park when it moved next door to the Betty J. Queen Intergenerational Center almost a decade ago.
“That was also supposed to be temporary,” said Molina, who co-owns the StrangeHouse skateboard shop in town.
Ferrel cautioned that just because the town bars the county from moving the registrar’s office there does not mean the building’s current users will get to stay. The county has plans for the yoga class to relocate to a modular structure next to the Betty J. Queen Intergenerational Center, and for the Girl Scouts to operate inside the center.
“It’s an efficient use of our taxpayer dollars,” he said of the county’s proposal to relocate the registrar’s office.
Putting the registrar’s office in a modular structure is not an option, Ferrel said. Because the modulars do not have foundations, he said they aren’t secure enough to store voting machines. Other county-owned buildings may have issues with parking, or providing access to people with disabilities. The state requires registrar’s offices to be available to the public as polling sites, though they are not actual precinct stations.
Some residents worried that if the registrar’s office moved to the Henson Building, a traffic jam would ensue during the next election season with so many people voting early in person. At one point in October, hundreds of people voted each day at the county office building or the Louisa Arts Center. The Henson Building has much less room than either facility for parking.
Ferrel said the county expects much lower turnout during non-presidential elections and can plan for alternative early voting sites when the presidency is on the ballot.