By Mark Waite
CARSON CITY — The Nevada Senate Monday unanimously passed a bill to transfer ownership of the Belmont courthouse from the State Land Registrar to Nye County.
The Senate Natural Resources Committee had previously voted to pass the bill Feb. 27. Senate Bill 121 was introduced by Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka.
If the bill is passed in the Assembly and signed by Gov. Brian Sandoval, Nye County will get back a historic building the state acquired by a quit claim deed in 1974.
In 1867, the Nevada Legislature passed a bill transferring the county seat from Ione to Belmont, which was having a silver mining boom with a population of 2,000 people, second only to Virginia City. The courthouse, made of kiln-dried brick on a stone foundation with a cupola and six chimneys, was commissioned in 1875, it was completed in 1876 at a cost of $34,000.
In introducing the bill, Goicoechea told the Senate Natural Resources Committee: “With the budget downturns, I don’t think the State of Nevada is able to do what we need to do with the building. Nye County and the Friends of the Belmont Courthouse feel very strongly about the need to continue to maintain the building. I know the building has been retrofitted, it’s completely seismic at this point, it would be a shame to let it deteriorate any further as we face this budget crunch.”
State Senator Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, said, “I can’t ignore this waste of money.” He inquired how long the state had the courthouse.
Goicoechea said, “It needs TLC constantly.”
The courthouse isn’t fenced, but there’s a drop box for people to put a donation. It’s locked to prevent vandalism, but the Friends of the Belmont Courthouse offer occasional tours. The courthouse is on 1.6 acres of land. Belmont is 45 miles northeast of Tonopah at 7,500 feet elevation in the scenic Toquima Range.
Manendo wondered if Nye County had the funds to take care of the courthouse either. He asked, “if Nye County has the money on that, I was always told they were really poor.”
Goicoechea replied, “I don’t know if they’re as poor as the state.”
“They keep laying off all their sheriffs,” Manendo said.
“We’re not here to discuss Nye County’s coffers. We’re here to discuss the Belmont courthouse, thank you,” Goicoechea replied.
District 36 Assemblyman James Oscarson, R-Pahrump, said he had his first opportunity to tour the Belmont Courthouse last summer with the Friends of the Belmont Courthouse.
“They have a great group of folks who are trying to preserve this great landmark,” Oscarson said. “There are some great opportunities for the state to showcase this facility.”
Former Nye County Commissioner Joni Eastley, now the assistant county manager, said she joined the 501 c 3 non-profit Friends of the Belmont Courthouse group as a commissioner. She said Nye County Commissioners support the bill.
“We have demonstrated our support by committing some capital projects funding and partnered with state parks to put a new roof on the courthouse. So we did that recently. That work was finished as well as some stabilization of the building,” Eastley said.
Eastley told Senator Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, the county used funds from the Payment Equal to Taxes from the U.S. Department of Energy for Yucca Mountain.
“I’m more worried on an ongoing basis. Will it be a county park?” Segerblom asked.
Eastley said, “it’s absolutely possible. The current Board of Commissioners may develop a plan to bring the Friends of the Belmont Courthouse as a partner on this project and use them as a fundraising arm for continued operations and maintenance of the building.”
Eastley told Segerblom mining companies like Round Mountain Gold have been asked to contribute to replace the windows.
Goicoechea said there are a number of provisions in the bill to protect the historic character of the building. The bill requires the deed to include restrictions that protect the historic and recreational value of the property; guarantees public access to the property and prevents the local government or any successor in title from transferring the property without authorization by a concurrent resolution of the Legislature. Any breach of the deed restrictions results in a reversion of the property to the state.
Segerblom described the courthouse as “a fantastic place” and had a photograph of himself at the site. But he said, “the state is financially strapped.”
Jim Lawrence, administrator for the Division of State Lands, spoke in favor of the bill. He said the Nevada Legislature appropriated $25,000 in 1973 to the Nevada Division of State Parks for restoration work on the courthouse.
“Both state parks and Nye County have conveyed to me the belief that long-term restoration of this building is best achieved through county ownership of the courthouse,” Lawrence said. He echoed Goicoechea’s statements about protection of the building’s historic value in the bill language.
Mark Davis, chief of planning and development for the Nevada Division of State Parks, said the $25,000 allocated in 1974 was to re-roof the building. After that state parks stabilized the foundation with a seismic retrofit, for protection in case of earthquakes. But Davis said the limited budget in deferred maintenance and the distance of the courthouse from other state park facilities made it impossible to accomplish everything in their master plan for the courthouse.
“Nye County and the Friends of the Belmont Courthouse have been excellent partners providing tours of the courthouse and the funds for replacement of the courthouse roof. Since Belmont and Nye County are an important part of Nevada history, we believed Nye County and the Friends of the Belmont Courthouse are better situated to protect, preserve and interpret the site,” Davis said.
Manendo said he was only concerned the state was cutting services for the citizens because the state doesn’t have the wherewithal to fund what should be done in Nevada. Eastley assured him services won’t be diverted from residents.
“This is, if you will, an unfunded mandate we gladly assume responsibility for,” Eastley said. “The Friends of the Belmont Courthouse, they are an active group. They will move several projects forward that will help restore the courthouse. I anticipate very little county resources being diverted to the restoration of this building.”
Donna Motis, president of the Friends of the Belmont Courthouse, said that non-profit organization was formed a year and a half ago. Though Nye County provided funds to restore the roof, she said their goal is not to ask the county for money.
“We do want to keep the courthouse. it is a big piece of Nye County history. We want it to be standing so we can have tours and show everybody how proud we are of it,” Motis said.
They plan a busy summer of activities, a lot of tours to keep the courthouse open as much as possible, she said.
Manendo asked about fundraising activities and grants. Motis said they’ve held membership drives, sold T-shirts and submitted grant requests to area mines. Friends of the Belmont Courthouse has over $10,000 in a checking account right now, she said.