Albemarle seeking input on courts move

Albemarle officials want the public to weigh in on the possibility of moving the county’s courts to a new location outside of downtown Charlottesville.

An online survey on the county website is open through August 25.

“The purpose of this anonymous survey is to gather input from county residents on their experiences at our existing courts and to learn what project considerations they feel are more important as the county studies the options of either renovating or relocating the courts,” reads the introduction to the survey.

Albemarle has been discussing the future of its court facilities for several years. A previous board had voted to renovate the existing buildings in Court Square to handle growing caseloads and to improve security.

This plan, which is still under consideration, would also see the construction of a three-story building at a new general district court that would be co-located with Charlottesville’s counterpart at the Levy Opera House site.  

However, a majority of the current board of Supervisors has directed staff to explore other options, and one remains under consideration.

“Option 5 would relocate the county’s circuit and general district courts to a new courts complex,” the survey continues. “This option assumes a new courts complex on either county-owned property or through a development partnership.”

Two other county initiatives appear to be lined up for Albemarle to proceed with such a move. The Renaissance Planning Group is working on a plan to guide redevelopment of the for area around the intersection of U.S. 29 and Rio Road.

The firm Stantec has been hired at a cost of $332,824 to offer advice on how the county could enter into a partnership with a private entity to build a new courts complex.

“This scope includes a subcontract of Moseley Architects and the Natural Center for State Courts to conduct an ‘adjacency study’ to analyze the potential operating impacts and or benefits to moving [the courts],” reads the scope of the contract with Stantec.

The ultimate decision on how to proceed rests with the Board of Supervisors, a board that will have a change in membership in the upcoming general election.

Voters in the three of the county’s six magisterial districts will go to the polls to elect a supervisor, but only one of those three races is contested.

Supervisor Diantha McKeel, a Democrat seeking her second term representing the Jack Jouett District, was one of four votes last November to direct staff to explore the possibility of moving county government buildings out of Charlottesville and into the county.

Supervisor Liz Palmer is a Democrat seeking re-election to her Samuel Miller District seat. She voted against studying moving the courts as did Rivanna District Supervisor Norman Dill.

Palmer’s opponent, Republican John Lowry, also favors keeping the courts in place. He said the idea of public-private partnership is speculative.

“Abstractly [a partnership] is a fine idea but we do not know the private part of the partnership nor its terms,” Lowry said in an email. “Using government money to lure a partner and perhaps borrowed money at that is not tenable in my opinion.”

Supervisor Brad Sheffield, who also favors exploring relocation of the courts, opted not to seek a second term. That means the potential swing vote will be cast by Democrat Ned Gallaway, the only candidate for the Rio District seat.

Gallaway said he is undecided.

“I am still in the process of gathering information and discussing the courts move with a variety of people,” Gallaway said. “In addition, I am awaiting the results of the consultant study that was commissioned by the board.”

Supervisors Ann Mallek and Rick Randolph were the other two votes to explore the possible relocation. They will next be up for reelection in 2019.

The county’s employees have also been asked to weigh in on the potential move.

“Very soon the consultant will also be initiating a review of current county government operations to better understand the department functions and space needs that will inform the analysis of the potential impact of moving our operations into a county location either alone or in combination with the courts,” wrote interim county executive Doug Walker in an August 2 email to Albemarle government workers.

One person who has taken the survey is Bruce Williamson, the chairman of the Charlottesville Albemarle Bar Association’s BAR-Bench Committee. He wants supervisors to leave the courts where they are.

“The system of justice works well with the courts at Court Square,” Williamson said. “It will work even more efficiently with the county and city general district courts in the same building.”

Williamson said moving the courts would harm the judicial system because limited resources would be stretched.

“The Legal Aid Justice Center, Central Virginia Legal Aid and the public defenders’ office all would be able to serve fewer people,” he said.

The survey can be taken here.