Negotiations continue between Albemarle and Charlottesville on sharing a future general district court downtown, but the county’s Board of Supervisors was briefed Wednesday on alternatives that would move at least some county courts to a new location.
“Investing in a public facility such as a courts complex in the development area can stimulate other investments and create a center of urban activity and a sense of place,” said Wayne Cilimberg, the county’s planning director.
Supervisors agreed in January 2015 to study sharing a future general district court with the city. Since then, two new members have been elected, and the board in February requested a briefing on other alternatives.
Staff briefed supervisors on options that had been analyzed during a 2012 study.
“Those options consisted of staying downtown, an option where we would split the [courts] and relocate the district courts to [a new] campus and a greenfield option where we would relocate all court services into a new county-designated area,” said Trevor Henry, the county’s director of facilities and environmental services.
Many in the legal community want Albemarle to keep its courts downtown, including the person elected last November to oversee its circuit court.
“It seems like we’ve been down this road before I was clerk and now we’re going down this road again,” said John Zug, the Albemarle County Circuit Court clerk.
In 2001, the city and county jointly funded a study with Moseley Architects to look at future options for both jurisdictions.
Henry said that led to the joint purchase in 2005 of the Levy Opera House in Court Square. At the time, the two localities also purchased land at Seventh and Market streets that is now used as a surface parking lot.
The city and county also agreed to jointly operate a juvenile and domestic relations court on East High Street following renovations in 2009.
In May 2013, supervisors directed staff to concentrate on the downtown option and to resolve possible issues with the city. That would involve using the Levy Opera House and a nearby new structure to build a total of four courtrooms and a new home for the Albemarle commonwealth’s attorney’s office.
“Parking was an item of importance to the board and to the citizens, and that was clearly something that needed to be resolved,” Henry said.
The city still hopes those negotiations will result in Albemarle remaining downtown.
“The city’s commitment to the project has been demonstrated by the $7 million expenditure in our five-year capital improvement plan and the resolution the council passed last year guaranteeing access to parking for county court users in both the short and long terms,” Miriam Dickler, the city’s communications director, said in an email.
Henry said there is a need for supervisors to make a decision soon, one way or another.
“There’s a great sense of urgency about the conditions of the downtown courts for security and ongoing maintenance,” Henry said.
Henry said all three options have a preliminary cost estimate of $47 million.
Cilimberg said supervisors could still use that investment to spur urban development elsewhere in Albemarle.
“They present the possibility of leveraging outside investments, as well, to advance urbanization goals and to provide in the facility ample parking and future expansion possibilities,” Cilimberg said.
No specific option is being suggested by county staff but the Mill Creek area, Berkmar Drive Extended and Fashion Square mall all were named as possibilities that could be investigated for further study.
County Executive Tom Foley said the county owns 36 acres near Monticello High School that could be a suitable location for a site that would allow more flexibility for future expansion if the county’s population grows faster than projected.
“You don’t want to get downtown and invest $47 million and find out your growth projections were off,” Foley said.
A referendum would be needed to move the circuit court to another location because it is technically the Albemarle county seat.
Supervisors did not take a vote or offer any clear direction at the meeting.
Supervisor Rick Randolph said he supported staying downtown if it can be worked out, but the county might need new courts with better security.
“I am excited about the new urban infill development concept,” Randolph said. “If time is going to be of the essence… the fact is that we have land and own it at Mill Creek. We don’t have to get into extensive negotiations with a landowner.”
Supervisor Norman Dill was more skeptical of the greenfield approach because the investment might not lead to the anticipated benefits.
“County building complexes are often disappointing economic development projects because there is not much around them and they are used by people that go to court who don’t shop or work there,” Dill said.
Supervisor Liz Palmer said supervisors should talk again with the clerks of court of both localities, as well as other stakeholders.
“If you pick up and move the courts, then you’re going to have huge opposition from the lawyers who have their offices downtown,” Zug said. “What you’re talking about is splitting up the two-court system, and while there isn’t great sharing of resources now, it’s one of the things that was part of my campaign.”
The Charlottesville Albemarle Bar Association supports the co-location of the courts system downtown.
“In addition to CABA, all of the other ‘stakeholders’ in the Courts support the co-location of the General District Courts downtown,” said Bruce Williamson, the chair of CABA’s Bench-Bar Committee.
“These include both judges, both commonwealth’s attorney’s offices, both sheriff’s departments, staff and, basically, all constituencies that deal with those courts,” Williamson said in an email. “All concerned recognize the benefits of the courts remaining in close proximity.”
Williamson said he was optimistic the city and county can successfully settle their negotiations.