Albemarle County supervisors on Wednesday revived the possibility of moving the county’s court buildings out of downtown Charlottesville to a new location yet to be determined.
That option was discarded in May, when the previous board directed staff to pursue negotiations with the city of Charlottesville to expand facilities in Court Square.
Relocating would cost an estimated $48 million to $52 million. It also would require a referendum to move the county seat, said Trevor Henry, the county’s facilities development director.
“I was never a strong supporter of the downtown option,” Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd said. “I wouldn’t be opposed to opening back up the possibilities of moving it out of the downtown area.”
Since 2000, the county has been studying expansion for a court system that includes the Circuit and General District courts along with the joint city and county Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
Albemarle’s first courthouse was built in Court Square in 1763, one year after Charlottesville was established as the county seat. The core of the existing Albemarle courthouse was built in 1803 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Expansion is needed to accommodate increasing caseloads, address security concerns and improve deteriorating conditions, said Bill Letteri, the assistant county executive.
“Currently there is insufficient courtroom space, and both courts have tried to accommodate that need by using meeting rooms to hold some court hearings,” Henry said.
The county hired Fairfax-based PSA-Dewberry in 2011 to study potential options for new facilities. A report was presented to the board in February 2013 after several meetings with stakeholders to gauge their needs and concerns.
The Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, which was renovated in 2009, is not included in the study. Henry said he believes it will be sufficient to meet the county’s needs for at least 20 years.
The city and county jointly own the Levy Opera House, which has been used for storage since it ceased serving as a temporary juvenile and domestic relations court during renovations.
“The premise of the downtown option would be to take advantage of the Levy building,” Henry said. The county would purchase the city’s share of the building, an annex would be demolished and the original building, built in 1852, would be renovated.
Henry said the downtown option would take about seven years to complete. The current capital improvement plan request for court expansion is $43 million.
There is also a hybrid option where the Circuit Court would remain in place, but the General District Court would be built elsewhere in the county.
“The biggest concern that came out of a stakeholder group is the split of operations and the burden that would force on sheriffs and the commonwealth’s attorney,” Henry said. “There’s a lot of synergy in proximity downtown to be able to cover court cases that are overlapping.”
Boyd said his support for the full relocation option stems from a concern that there is not enough parking in downtown Charlottesville.
“The only parking proposed in the downtown option is about 24 spaces for staff and secure parking for the judges,” Letteri said.
County Executive Thomas L. Foley said moving all operations to a new location could spur economic development in Albemarle.
“There might be some redevelopment scenarios in some of our inner urban areas,” Foley said. These might include vacant shopping centers on U.S. 29.
“If you had a public-private partnership, the concept would be that someone else would come to the table that might have property and we would put some infrastructure into it to develop the courts which would allow them to develop their property and lease some space out,” Foley added.
Supervisor Diantha McKeel said she also is concerned about parking, but the board must be careful before spending so much.
“Forty-million dollars is going to take our [capital improvement program] to another place,” McKeel said. “We have to make sure that when we spend that $40 million, we are really careful about what we do.”
McKeel said she could not support the “split” option. Supervisor Jane Dittmar, who works as a mediator in the court system, agreed.
“The options that pull these courts from each other will present … a burden on judges,” Dittmar said. She added that many downtown businesses offer legal services in a centrally located place.
“I can’t move forward with the downtown option unless we figure out the parking,” McKeel said. “But we are one community and there’s got to be a way that we can get this figured out.”
Foley agreed to schedule an April work session to get additional input from stakeholders.