As Albemarle officials continue to work toward a decision on whether to move the county’s courts outside of downtown Charlottesville, one item currently not under consideration is the city’s offer to create more parking spaces.
Jody Saunders, Albemarle’s communications coordinator, said supervisors directed county staff to “pause” negotiations with the city in November 2016.
“We have not been in communication with the city regarding parking, or any other point of potential negotiation with regards to courts facilities, since that time,” Saunders said.
Albemarle has spent many years studying how to increase the capacity of its court systems to accommodate growing caseloads that will come with a growing population.
The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia projects the county’s population will increase to more than 148,000 in the year 2045, up from a current population estimate of 105,715.
In January 2015, the six supervisors at the time voted unanimously to proceed with a plan to work with Charlottesville to build a joint general district court at a site that formerly held the Levy Opera House. The city has committed $6.4 million to that endeavor in its capital improvement program.
However, the county’s projected need to invest in additional court space is much higher. The five-year capital improvement budget adopted by supervisors earlier this year anticipates spending up to $47 million to either renovate the existing courts or build new ones.
In 2016, there were enough supervisors interested in revisiting the possibility of relocating the courts outside downtown as a way of leveraging those capital costs to spur economic development. That resulted in a 4-2 vote last December to hire the firm Stantec for $328,824 to study the economic benefits of moving the courts to serve as an anchor for a new town center.
Last month, supervisors reviewed a draft of a 227-page “adjacency study” conducted by the National Center for State Courts intended to describe how the existing courts interact with their counterparts that serve Charlottesville.
“The big piece of analysis we wanted was to understand how the courts interact downtown and how the county and the city and the adjacent support services all work together,” said Trevor Henry, the county’s director of facilities and environmental services. “If the courts were separated, how might the county adjust processes or resources to minimize impacts?”
As part of the study, NCSC staff conducted 12 focus groups with stakeholders consisting of 32 officials.
“We were involved with judges, clerks of court, law enforcement officers, commonwealth’s attorney [personnel], public defender [staff], legal aid attorneys and private attorneys from the local bar association,” said Gregory Langham with the NCSC.
Langham said an online survey in the draft was not intended to serve as a vote for or against any of the remaining options and was not intended to be scientifically valid.
Nevertheless, the draft stated that 83.3 percent of respondents to an online survey and the court stakeholders were in favor of keeping all of the community’s courts downtown.
At least one supervisor suggested the draft report be edited to remove that information because it might be misleading.
“I think the direction you’ve been given and the effort that we took on was not the best approach to this,” said Supervisor Brad Sheffield. “I would suggest that we offer direction to staff to generalize the public survey information and avoid the percentages at this time.”
Albemarle’s Circuit Court clerk, Jon Zug, said he thought the NCSC study did exactly what it was intended to do.
“I heard complaints regarding the study from both supporters of keeping the courts downtown who thought the study favored the moving of the courts and from people who want to move the courts from downtown who thought the study favored keeping the courts downtown,” Zug said. “That was one of the biggest indicators to me that the NCSC did exactly what they were asked to do.”
Langham said a major challenge to remaining downtown is parking.
“If I were an investor, I’d be building a parking garage because, at this point, that was high on everyone’s list,” Langham said. “What can we do to sufficiently address the inadequate parking?”
The NCSC draft report notes that the relocation option would create 250 public parking spaces and 100 spaces for judges, jurors and law enforcement officers. However, it does not make any mention of an offer from the city to provide parking to serve the county’s courts if they remain downtown.
“The city is now committed to providing up to 100 parking spaces for the county in a new garage in downtown to help meet their future court parking needs,” said City Manager Maurice Jones in an email. “We would not ask the county to share in the capital costs of those spaces.”
Jones said the city and county would still need to come to an agreement on sharing operating and maintenance costs. Those negotiations were suspended last year.
The city paid $2.85 million last year to purchase a 0.4-acre property at the corner of Market Street and Ninth Street Northeast. One potential scenario for a new parking garage would be to combine that land with an adjacent 0.41-acre parking lot to the west that is jointly owned by the city and county.
So far, there are no concrete plans to proceed.
“The resolution of the county decision on the courts will impact how and when we proceed with plans for this structure,” Jones said.
Zug acknowledged that parking is a problem for the current court location and has been since he began work in Court Square 30 years ago. But he said he believes the issue could be solved if city and county officials would talk to each other.
“What concerns me the most, at this juncture, is that the city and county are not having any significant discussion and cooperation with each other,” Zug said. “We can solve a lot of the problems in our joint community if the two governing bodies of our two jurisdictions start appreciably working together.”
Supervisor Diantha McKeel said her takeaway from the survey is that the courts can work in either location.
“Certainly, we have our attorneys and the judges, but we also have our Albemarle County residents and that’s what we have to look at,” McKeel said. “Some of us may weigh one of those groups more heavily than another group.”
Langham told supervisors that if they decided to move the courts, some of the effects could be addressed through case management and better scheduling.
“It’s not necessarily where the courts are at but how they manage the information they have and how they provide that managed service in an unbiased, impartial way,” Langham said.
Palma Pustilnik, senior staff attorney with the nonprofit Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, said having Albemarle and Charlottesville courts together allows her to serve more clients. The city and county currently operate a joint Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court on High Street.
“They are actually in the same building with shared staff and literally we run up and down the stairs and we are in two jurisdictions and can represent many, many more clients,” Pustilnik said. “With the Albemarle and the Charlottesville general district courts essentially within a block of each other, I can be in several jurisdictions at once at the same docket time.”
Pustilnik said that if she had to travel to a second location, it would mean less time she could devote to helping survivors of sexual and domestic violence.
The courts relocation is not on the agenda for the board’s meeting this Wednesday. Henry said there will be a work session on the relocation Dec. 13.
“A public hearing will be held on [Dec. 18] with potential action and direction [from the board] on [Dec. 20],” Henry said.
Saunders said a vote is not scheduled for the board’s final meeting of the year.
“The Dec. 20th date is not anticipated to result in a specific decision regarding courts, but rather for the board to provide staff with direction on next steps,” Saunders said.