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Albemarle still exploring courts move despite Augusta vote, city parking plans

The electoral defeat of a proposal to relocate Augusta County courts from Staunton will not stop Albemarle officials from exploring the possibility of moving that county’s courts out of Charlottesville.

“I don’t think it has any effect on the Board of Supervisors considering the option of going to a referendum, which is what we’re exploring,” said Albemarle County Executive Tom Foley. “Obviously, no decision has been made yet.”

Earlier this month, voters in Augusta voted two-to-one against a ballot question that would allow the county to move its county seat from Staunton to a new location in Verona. The measure also would have allowed up to $45 million to be spent on the effort.

“Although Augusta held town-hall meetings and provided court facility tours and spoke at many organized groups, the scope of citizens these venues reach are small compared to the voting population, which was larger than normal due to the presidential election,” said Carol Brydge, clerk of courts for Augusta County.

Speaking as herself and not as an elected official, Brydge said many people were voting for the first time and were unaware that the courthouse item was even on the ballot.

“When a person reads the referendum language and sees a large sum of money, the initial reaction is ‘no,’” Brydge said.

Albemarle has spent several years exploring ways to expand its court system to handle additional capacity.

In October, Albemarle supervisors voted 4-2 to direct staff to explore options that would move the circuit court to either a new location in the county or to the McIntire Road office building.

In the latter approach, a new county office building would be constructed at an undetermined location in Albemarle.

Foley said relocating the courts would be a cheaper option than keeping them in the city.

“The issues are different here,” he said. “Obviously, the process is the same, but the reason that [Albemarle] is considering some of the potential benefits are very different from what was going in Augusta County.”

County staff members are now preparing a report on how a public-private partnership might help Albemarle generate economic activity through redevelopment. On Dec. 14, the board will be briefed about how a new urban center could be an anchor for the court or a new county office building.

Moving the circuit court out of its current location will require voter approval.

Supervisor Rick Randolph, a proponent of potentially moving the courts, said he believes that his constituents will support a referendum if that option is selected.

“Unlike in Augusta County, Albemarle residents outside of the legal community are very supportive of seeing better court services and parking, both at a cost savings to them,” Randolph said.

However, Supervisor Liz Palmer has taken a different lesson from the Augusta County results.

“It reinforces my concern that a referendum to move the Albemarle County Circuit Court to the county will be rejected by the majority of Albemarle County voters,” Palmer said.

This week, members of the Charlottesville City Council announced a plan to spend $ million for land at Ninth and Market streets for a new parking garage and to spend up to $10 million on its construction.

Foley said the county’s exploration will not be affected by that decision.

“The parking was not a determining factor for the board in terms of looking at these other alternatives,” Foley said. “It had more to do with the opportunities that the other options create for economic development and redevelopment.”

If the board opted to hold a referendum, the circuit court would have to approve the question. Foley said he believed that would need to happen by August in order to qualify for the general election next November.

“We would need the six to eight months to have been successful [for] moving forward some kind of an arrangement with the private sector,” Foley said. “There’s nothing that says this couldn’t be pushed off to November 2018, but that’s definitely not what we’re shooting for at this point.”

Brydge’s counterpart in Albemarle believes the referendum will not be successful.

“Given the opposition that exists in the legal community and other members of our community at large to moving the courthouses, it will be a very difficult referendum issue here in Albemarle County and certain to raise a lot of deeply held feelings,” said Clerk of Court John Zug.

“Personally, as I have told the board, I support the solution of option one, which keeps the courts in and around Court Square,” he added. “It provides the greatest amount of judicial economy to our community.”

Officials say there are currently no negotiations between Albemarle and Charlottesville to discuss that option.

Randolph said he would consider the downtown option if the city will agree to open up the revenue-sharing agreement signed in 1982 by both communities. Albemarle expects to pay $16.1 million to Charlottesville in this year’s budget.

“If the city were to offer to re-negotiate the non-annexation agreement with the county and halve the amount the county owes the city on an annual basis, then I am one supervisor who would be very receptive to reopening our negotiations with the city to retaining the courts downtown,” Randolph said.

Meanwhile, Augusta County officials are now wondering what to do next.

“Just because the referendum failed does not change the fact that the needs are great within both the circuit courthouse and the district courts building,” Brydge said.