A series of speakers from the legal community, as well as two city councilors, asked the Albemarle Board of Supervisors on Monday to keep the county’s courts in downtown Charlottesville.
“I am constantly striving to hear cases in an efficient, timely manner,” said Cheryl Higgins, presiding judge of Albemarle’s Circuit Court. “What makes this possible is the proximity to city and county courts, including the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.”
A previous Board of Supervisors agreed in July 2014 to work with the city to co-locate both jurisdictions’ general district courts at the co-owned Levy Opera House to meet the growing needs of the county.
However, a newly elected Board of Supervisors asked earlier this year to revisit previous options.
“A number of months ago, our board asked us to look at the [current McIntire Road] County Office Building, and that was something new that hadn’t been put out,” said County Executive Tom Foley. “We previously looked at downtown and moving out of the county, but now we have these other three options mixed in now.”
Charlottesville City Council has allocated $7 million in its capital improvement program for the relocation effort and was in negotiations to build more parking spaces to meet a guarantee of at least 100 additional downtown spaces for the court at a cost of nearly $2.5 million.
“The public needs to know that City Council has met the county board on their requests, and then some,” said city Mayor Mike Signer. “Contrary to the unfortunate and misleading narrative regarding ‘limited and uncertain parking conditions,’ my colleagues and I have worked closely with the county to identify and meet their needs.”
Foley said in a media briefing on Friday that the board’s request is not about parking.
“Certainly parking was an issue, particularly over the last few years as we worked with the city on possibly renovating our courts there, but these other things have emerged as bigger issues for the board,” Foley said, adding that the county is looking to reduce its costs however it can.
Foley said economic development is a larger goal for the county.
Albemarle currently is engaged in a small-area plan for the intersection of Rio Road and U.S. 29. Foley said the plan might reveal that the Rio Road area is suitable for an office complex anchored by the county courts.
“What we’re really talking about is the thing that’s happened in some other localities where they’ve taken a public facility just as a catalyst to start to create a new place,” Foley said. “If you imagine an old abandoned shopping center that’s not doing very well and you partnered up with a developer and a property owner and had the county come in to get the redevelopment started, how much does their profit go up if they want to make this place with some retail, office space and maybe some apartments?”
Foley pointed to Newport News, Virginia Beach and James City County as examples of public-private partnerships based on new government buildings.
“If we’re going to spend $27 million to $40 million, why not do it in a partnership that starts to meet some of our other goals for economic development?” Foley asked.
The alternatives begin with $40 million for the downtown option, including the $7 million in contributions from the city.
The other options involve adding onto the existing County Office Building-McIntire to accommodate the county’s General District Court. Option 2 would move the city’s General District Court to McIntire Road, though this co-location is not acceptable to the city.
Option 3 would move only the county’s General District Court to McIntire Road and allow the county’s administrative offices to remain there.
Option 4 would move both courts to the County Office Building-McIntire.
“Option 5 would be a full relocation into the county with the assumption that there would be a public-private partnership,” said Trevor Henry, the county’s director of facilities and environmental management.
Henry said this would mean the county would not have to pay for the land. He added that if supervisors act to move the Circuit Court, county staff will work to get the necessary referendum scheduled for November 2017.
Foley said the mixed-use development would help launch a downtown Albemarle that could include space for small companies to locate.
However, as of press time, all but one speaker argued for keeping the courts downtown.
“I find it amazing that me as a lifelong Republican is asking six Democrats to not put economic development first,” said David Thomas, an attorney with Michie Hamlet.
“The numbers on cost do not represent the true cost going forward,” he said, adding that the legal community would organize against any referendum.
A representative from the Legal Aid Justice Center said moving the courts would make it harder to represent low-income families facing eviction. Others spoke about removing the county’s court away from its history and another questioned the use of public-private partnerships.
“When I hear ‘public-private partnership,’ what I hear is a real estate developer who will make a bunch of money while the public gets kicked in the teeth,” said Andre Hakes, an attorney with Tucker Griffin Barnes.
But Lisa Jones, a developer of Peter Jefferson Place, said the county should respect the county’s taxpayers and save money if possible.
“That should override everything that you decide,” Jones said, adding that the county could do a sixth option where courts stayed downtown for now and the county could seek to rent space as needed somewhere in the county.
Supervisors had not yet voted or held a substantial discussion as of press time. Board Chairwoman Liz Palmer said they would at least be eliminating some of the options Monday night.
However, one supervisor seemed skeptical of the concept of moving the courts before the public hearing began.
“I know there’s been good and bad public-private partnerships,” said Supervisor Norman Dill. “I think there’s not necessarily an intuitive connection between having a court system and why an area would make that more vibrant. People going to court aren’t necessarily in a shopping or movie-going mode.”
Dill also questioned whether the county could create an environment like the Downtown Mall within Albemarle’s growth area.
“I think we need to think closely about what we’re doing here,” Dill said.