Will a leaky courtroom trigger a courthouse sale?

Todd says courthouse a series of fires that never burn out.

Is the county going to dispose of the courthouse? -Rich Saltzberg

As the Dukes County Courthouse, long plagued with heating, cooling, plumbing, and electrical problems, continues to add to its résumé of dysfunction, the county has begun to mull the possibility of disposing of it, with the Massachusetts Trial Court system a possible candidate as a buyer. However, the county building doesn’t house only state courts (district, superior, and probate).

“If we’re going to plan to sell the courthouse, we’ve got to plan for what to do with the Registry,” Dukes County Commission chair Christine Todd said Friday. 

During a bench trial Thursday, Judge Benjamin Barnes had to advise witnesses to be careful near the witness stand, because a barrel had been set up to catch dripping water. The water came from a failing heat pump with AC capability. County manager Martina Thornton told The Times on Friday that the county has placed trash barrels to address failing units upstairs in the courthouse. Thornton also said she has asked Rise Engineering, the general contractor for the heat pump system, to figure out what to do. Thornton said the subcontractor who installed the units in 2018 has been unresponsive to requests for service. She declined to provide that contractor’s name. She also said it has been difficult to tap an alternate contractor to tinker with the system. Thornton said she has also been in communication with the trial court maintenance department to learn ”if this is repairable, how?” 

Charles O’Brien, director of court facilities management, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. The Dukes County commissioners voted Wednesday to approve the installation of an electrical panel on the second floor of the courthouse to, among other things, provide electrical capability for window-mounted AC units. 

Thornton described the courthouse as “not built with the electrical load needs of today.”

She said even with the new panel approved, the outside mounts necessary to support window AC units could run afoul of historical restrictions placed on the courthouse. 

On Wednesday at a weekly commissioners’ meeting, commissioner Keith Chatinover said that at a recent county advisory board (CAB) meeting, “they raised a lot of concerns about the courthouse, and I think some of them are deeply well-founded. So at some point in the near future I do think we should have the courthouse on our agenda …”

Todd said she recently had a chat with Thornton “about our need to have a very open and thorough discussion pertaining to the courthouse, the future of it.” Todd said talking about the courthouse will include talking about the future of the Registry of Deeds, where it will be housed, “and what are our possibilities.”

Todd emphasized the county can’t simply get rid of the courthouse without considering the Registry of Deeds, among other factors. “I do think it is time for a very healthy conversation among the commissioners and other interested parties about the future of the courthouse and its relationship with Dukes County,” Todd said.

Todd said she expects to put the subject on a September agenda, when other county properties will be discussed as well. 

“I think a real, in-depth, global conversation should happen,” commissioner Tristan Israel said. Israel noted the county’s leased property at the airport and the Vineyard Healthcare Access building in Oak Bluffs should be discussed. “If we’re really going to look into the courthouse, and that includes the CAB, we need to have the tenacity to stick with it,” Israel said. Israel pointed out past committees formed to liaise with court officials about the courthouse had sputtered out.

“I don’t disagree,” Todd said. Todd said previously court officials were unhappy with various conditions in the building, which led to a conversation and the promise of further conversation. But the promise of further conversation “fell apart” because “the immediate needs that they had were met … now we just keep having to put out these fires as they erupt, and they never go completely out.”

Todd went on to say, “And it really is up to the county, you know, to decide what we want to do moving forward with input from others, but if others don’t show up to give their input, we can’t force them.”

Israel said the county needed to be a “thorn” in the side of court officials, because their opinion is pivotal. 

Thornton said one contractor who declined to work on the heat pump system said the units will never work properly, and the system needs a redesign. Concerning the panel, Thornton said the superior court clerk’s office was in need of more outlets, and the panel would also help with that. 

She asked for the commissioners to approve “up to $20,000 from the capital improvement fund” to pay for the installation of the panel, which the commissioners did. 

Todd said a strategic plan needed to be crafted to address all county buildings. 

In other business, the commissioners touched upon the Trustees of Reservations’ abandonment of its draft beach management plan

“As you know, the Trustees pulled the draft management plan for Norton Point and Wasque until further notice,” Thornton said. “I think they realize that they have to redraft it altogether, so that’s on hold right now.”

“We’re hoping that when they’re ready, that they will come back to us again,” Israel said; “we can maybe even let the public know, and have a meeting here when they get through to the final draft.”

“Did they give any kind of timeline, Martina?” Todd asked.

“No,” Thornton said.


  1. This is a building that was completed in 1858 I believe, with a wing added much later for the Registry of Deeds. Until the units were installed in 2018 there was no air conditioning in the courtroom at all. It became unbearable at times, for the public and for the staff. Especially after a busy 4th of July weekend for instance. The windows would have to be opened and then no one could hear a thing, particularly when the buses would pull up right outside. The new units were great, but one in particular started leaking within a few weeks, slowly at first. Now it appears that it’s leaking to the point of being dangerous.
    I would propose selling the building to the Commonwealth and then the County could pay rent to the state for the Registry of Deeds to remain where it is. That won’t solve the problem of the leaks but then it becomes less of a local issue. Maybe the state would even be able to get someone to fix the darned things!


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