The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has kept alive four options to expand and modernize the county’s courts, including one that would relocate both the circuit and general district courts outside of the city of Charlottesville.
“There’s more work that needs to be done before I am ready to make a choice,” said Supervisor Ann H. Mallek.
A majority of the board directed staff to conduct more research into a public-private partnership that would form the basis of an option to move both courts — and the official county seat — to a new location in the county’s urban ring.
“Certainly, we would need some more information on [that] option going forward,” said Supervisor Diantha McKeel, who argued that the county needs to create additional tax revenues. She said relocating the courts could be a catalyst for an urbanized Albemarle.
“We have to be about more than providing bedrooms or we just can’t make it,” she said.
The direction came after a public comment period Monday night in which more than 30 speakers from the legal community pleaded with supervisors to keep the courts downtown. That option has a preliminary cost estimate of $39.7 million, compared to $30.9 million for relocating the county’s general and circuit courts.
Board Chairwoman Liz Palmer said she had been persuaded to choose downtown by “incredible comments” from the legal community.
“The whole idea of this court system being part of an economic development project to me is just wrong,” Palmer said. “I think we should listen to the people who have spoken.”
The only option eliminated Monday is the one that would relocate both the city and county general district courts to the county office building on McIntire Road. Charlottesville officials are opposed to the idea.
McKeel expressed surprise that this option also had no support from the legal community.
“It seemed like, to me, that using the county office building in some way, shape or form was a great compromise,” McKeel said. “I’m disappointed that we haven’t been able to come together.”
McKeel said supervisors have a fiscal responsibility to county taxpayers.
“We’re the ones that are charged with the financial [decisions] in Albemarle County, and we’ve had three years of raising taxes,” McKeel said. “I just don’t see that a compromise or one of the options other than [the downtown] option would be such a horrible thing.”
Palmer pointed out that the downtown option is a compromise for the city because they have set aside $7 million to co-locate at the Levy Opera House despite having no need to increase its own capacity.
The city also has agreed to spend $2.5 million on the construction of a new parking garage near the courts that would allow at least 100 spaces for Albemarle.
Supervisor Rick Randolph agreed with McKeel that supervisors must put the financial interests of the county first.
“This community is at a point now with the courts where we have an opportunity to make a change that’s in the best long-term interest of our residents in terms of accessing courts either here at the county office building or out in another location in the county,” Randolph said.
Supervisor Norman Dill, a supporter of remaining downtown, said pursuing that option would involve further negotiating with the city. He suggested getting a mediator to move forward.
“We still have to finish talking about parking,” Dill said. “If the issue is money, what’s it worth? Can we figure out a way to save that much money? Maybe that’s the next negotiation.”
A majority of supervisors appeared unwilling to immediately resume negotiations with the city on the downtown option.
“I welcome continuing conversations with the city, but I don’t know where else those conversations go,” said Supervisor Brad Sheffield. “We’re balancing now the virtues of planning and being good stewards of the taxpayer dollars, so exploring what Option 5 actually produces is just the due diligence of that effort.”
Randolph said he wanted to keep a proposal to move just the county general district court to McIntire Road as a fall-back option.
A referendum is required to move the county’s circuit court from its current location.
“We’ve had the statement this evening that the chances of the referendum going through would be remote, so not having a backup plan would be a positive step,” Randolph said. “Otherwise, we’re all the way back to square zero.”
Mallek said she wants more information about how a public-private partnership could be written to protect the public.
Foley said staff will come back with such information on Option 5, which would relocate the county’s general district and circuit courts to a site in the county.
“The main question that I have is around how we would pursue the downtown option, and I might suggest we carry that discussion to closed session in November,” Foley said.
McKeel said she wanted to know what else the city would bring to the table.
“Something is going to have to come from the city regarding that, as well,” McKeel said. “[The downtown option] is going to entail the city reaching out to us, as well. We can’t do that in absence with the city.”
Bruce Williamson, chairman of the BAR-Bench Committee of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association, said he was pleased supervisors did not eliminate the option of remaining downtown.
“I am very impressed with the thoroughness with which the board received the comments from the public,” Williamson said. “I’m impressed by the fact of the board is going to study this further and take it very seriously. As far as the BAR is concerned, option one is alive and well, and we hope that the board will choose it.”