People walk into the Hancock County Courthouse from State Street in Ellsworth in this 2019 file photo. State officials have said they are looking for a site elsewhere in Ellsworth where they can build a new modern courthouse building. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

State officials have decided to construct a new courthouse in the city of Ellsworth, but aren’t sure where or how long it might be before it is built.

Although Maine’s Judicial Branch, which oversees state courts, had expressed an interest in a 19th century residential property next to the existing county courthouse on State Street, it has decided not to pursue that option, officials said Monday.

The 5,700 square foot house built in 1840 abuts the courthouse complex and is owned by Ruth Foster, a former local city councilor and state legislator. The state was interested in buying her property in 2021 because of its proximity to the county jail and the district attorney’s office.

The state has since dropped the idea and now is looking for a property that has “at least five buildable acres,” according to a legal notice posted online. Foster’s property is less than two acres.

“I wish them good luck,” Foster said Monday about the state’s search for a suitable property. “I hope they find what they need.”

The state is looking for a site where it can construct a building with a footprint of at least 30,000 square feet and parking for up to 150 vehicles. The current courthouse complex has public parking for maybe 50 vehicles, resulting on busy days with courthouse visitors parking along State Street or across the street in the Ellsworth City Hall parking lot.

Currently, Hancock County civil and criminal court cases are managed out of the county courthouse, which also houses the county government. The building, which was constructed in the 1930s after a previous courthouse on the same site burned down, has had several additions built onto it since then, creating a winding maze of corridors on the third floor where the state courts are located.

“‘Odd’ is a generous way to put it,” said Barbara Cardone, spokesperson for the state court system, of the courthouse’s third-floor layout.

The hodge-podge additions and renovations have resulted in a layout that falls far below current security standards and require court staff and judges to walk around in the same hallways as the public as they make their way from clerks’ offices to judges’ chambers to the courtroom. The state’s intent is to design a new judicial center in Ellsworth — as it has in recent years in Augusta, Bangor, Belfast, and Biddeford, among other places — is to have a building in which court staff use separate entrances and hallways from the public.

The current courthouse cannot be modified to meet those standards, Cardone said Monday. Ellsworth is among the highest priorities in the state for constructing a new courthouse, she said.

Cardone said the state is looking for a site centrally located in the city that could be accessed by public transportation and is close to other services. The state has money to purchase a property but will need the Legislature to approve additional funding for construction before it can start work, she said.

The state does not have a building design in mind, she said, so how much the project will cost depends on where it decides to build and what sort of building design it comes up with.

“You’re talking millions of dollars,” Cardone said.

The Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor, which was completed in 2009, cost $37 million to build in an era when construction costs were significantly lower, but Penobscot County has a higher caseload than Hancock County. York Judicial Center in Biddeford, which opened this spring, cost around $70 million but also has a larger caseload than Hancock County, Cardone noted.

How long the project might take likely will depend on the availability of a suitable site, but it likely will be years before a new courthouse is built in Ellsworth.

“It all depends on when we find the right piece of land,” she said.

The completion of such a building will free up the entire third floor of the existing courthouse, with the exception of the county commissioners’ meeting room, which is the only part of the floor not occupied by the judicial branch.

Michael Crooker, the county administrator, said Monday that he has only just started doing an analysis of the county’s needs and how it might use the space once the state moves out.

“We’re far from getting to that final process of what that might look like,” Crooker said.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....