As Albemarle continues to study the possibility of relocating its general district court to another site, the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce wants county officials to keep in mind the economic impacts a move would have on the region.
“A relocation of the Albemarle County court system would have a significant impact on access, efficiency and the significant multimillion-dollar annual positive economic activity of the area,” wrote Sophia Holmes and Michael Nafziger, two chamber interns tasked with writing a report on the court system.
The county’s legal system has been centered on the existing courthouse since it was built in 1803. The structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
However, a 2012 study by JPA-Dewberry concluded the county would need to add more courtroom space to handle increased caseloads that come with a higher population.
The full cost estimate to renovate the existing court or relocate a portion of it elsewhere is nearly $47.5 million, according to the county’s Capital Improvement Program.
Supervisors have allocated $31.7 million to the project over the next five years, but have not yet given direction on how to proceed.
Albemarle and Charlottesville co-own the Levy Opera House building, which is in Court Square in the city, and have been in negotiations about renovating it for a joint general district court with additional capacity.
The city has contributed $500,000 toward a feasibility study for that option and has committed to spending $6.4 million on its implementation, according to Trevor Henry, the county’s director of facilities and environmental services.
The two communities have been operating a joint Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court since a facility on High Street was renovated in 2009.
In January 2015, supervisors directed staff to pursue working with the city on a joint general district court in the Levy building.
However, a board with two new supervisors was briefed on the matter this past April and has kept open the option of relocating the courts elsewhere.
“The county’s most recent, expanded analysis focused on the possible relocation of selected court operations to the County Office Building on McIntire Road in the city,” said Lee Catlin, assistant county executive.
“While it is clearly our intent to continue to focus on this particular option, the board has not ruled out the option of relocating some or all of our court operations to the county,” she said.
With a decision still looming, the chamber directed Holmes and Nafziger to study the economic impact of a unified judicial system set up around Court Square.
Holmes attends the University of Richmond and Nafziger is a student at Swarthmore College.
They pulled records from a jobs database maintained by the Central Virginia Partnership for Economic Development and found that the legal system employs 534 people with an average annual wage of $63,714.
The courts themselves employ 76 people with an average annual wages of $61,696. There are 25 clerks employed by the courts who have an average annual wage of $33,900.
Lawyers make up the bulk of employees. There are about 400 lawyers, with an average wage of $67,450.
Altogether, the report claims that legal employees have a collective earned annual income of $34 million.
In 2015 there were 16,315 hearings in Charlottesville General District Court, compared with 19,259 such hearings in Albemarle.
During the same period, there were 7,164 hearings on the Charlottesville side of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, compared with 9,483 in Albemarle.
The report says that keeping these thousands of hearings in the same place is a benefit for area residents.
“Having both court systems adjacent to one another is reliably efficient,” Holmes and Nafziger wrote. “The current location downtown is compact and walkable. [There are] planning objectives greatly treasured and sought after for decades by our local government planning professionals and elected and appointed public servants.”
Supervisor Liz Palmer said she read the report and that she is aware of the economic impacts of the courts.
“There are those who would prefer that economic activity be generated in the county, especially given the financial investment our taxpayers will make,” Palmer said.
For her part, Palmer said Court Square is an asset for both the city and county.
“Having an historic court that has functioned at that location for over 200 years is unique and brings economic activity to the entire region through tourism,” she said. “It has a ‘wow’ factor.”