The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday directed staff to continue studying moving the county’s court system to a new site in parallel with negotiations to keep the facilities in downtown Charlottesville.
Albemarle plans to spend tens of millions of dollars over the next several years to expand the capacity of its courts to accommodate population growth.
Supervisors previously cited a lack of downtown parking as one reason to move the courts out of the location where the county’s legal system has been based since 1763.
“I do hope that we will hold our ground and try to get some really good contributions and help from the city as far as the parking issue is concerned to enable us to stay downtown,” Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said.
The capital budget for next fiscal year includes $2.3 million to begin design work for the courts upgrade. Staff sought direction on how to proceed.
“The central question is whether we go on a parallel track with the downtown and the out-in-the-county option, or almost focus exclusively on one,” County Executive Thomas L. Foley said.
The board’s decision to continue developing both options comes two months after a work session at which supervisors heard from judges, attorneys and other stakeholders who said they would strongly prefer to remain in Court Square.
Supervisors said they have not yet been convinced by city officials that there was adequate parking to support investing millions in renovating the existing courts.
“Having a 35-year history of having to go to court for small claims, I have found the parking issue to be real, even as an able-bodied walker,” Mallek said.
Another supervisor wanted cost estimates to be developed further to provide for a better comparison between the two options.
“I plan on taking this out to the community so they are aware of the money that we’ll be spending on this,” Supervisor Brad Sheffield said. “I’d like to get the public to have an understanding of what the $40 million or $50 million investment might be and what the return might be on that investment.”
Supervisor Diantha McKeel said she and her colleagues have to keep the future in mind.
“We’re talking about a facility that’s going to last us a long time,” McKeel said. “The community is growing. The courts are growing. We have to figure out the long-term as well.”
Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd invoked Martha Jefferson Hospital moving to Pantops in order to find more space in his remarks.
“They moved their operations from downtown and where all their doctor’s offices were out to Pantops, and I think if you talk to them, you’d find out it did eventually work out for them,” Boyd said.
No site for a new courts complex has been officially identified. Foley said he would prepare timelines for how the downtown option would
work, as well as some scenarios for how relocation might work.
“We would envision community meetings first of all, and then we would pursue a public-private partnership of some sort,” he said.
Moving the county courts would require a referendum in order to move the county seat to the new location.
The topic will be on the agenda of an upcoming joint meeting between the City Council and the Board of Supervisors scheduled from noon to 4 p.m. July 1 at Piedmont Virginia Community College.
Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones said the city is open to discussion.
“We believe there are some fairly simple steps we could take to address some of the County’s concerns about parking in the near term,” Jones said in an email.
“And as we’ve stated before as part of our discussion about the future of downtown, we will need to study the long term parking needs of not only our court systems but the businesses and their employees downtown,” he added.