Public speaks out against moving county courts

Representatives of several organizations pleaded with the Albemarle Board of Supervisors on Monday to keep the county’s Circuit and General District courts in their current location in downtown Charlottesville.

“Court Square today provides continuity with our past,” said Jean Hiatt, a member of Preservation Piedmont. “Charlottesville is an important transportation hub that facilitates access to the courts.”

Hiatt was one of 18 people to speak during a special public hearing held before supervisors provide further direction on an ongoing study of the economic benefits of relocating the courts or the County Office Building into the county proper. That is set to take place at a special meeting beginning at noon Wednesday at the County Office Building-McIntire.

“The range of options could include additional due diligence of public-private partnership opportunities or possibly renewed negotiations with the city,” said board Chairwoman Diantha McKeel.

Earlier in the day, city and county staff met to discuss Charlottesville’s offer to build additional parking to support a previous direction to jointly locate the two localities’ General District courts in a new structure on the site of the former Levy Opera house.

“The city requested the meeting as an opportunity to clarify its June 2016 proposal regarding a city-county partnership for downtown parking for courts operations,” county spokeswoman Jody Saunders said in a news release. “Negotiations were paused in November 2016 to allow the county to study the feasibility of relocating the courts and/or county administrative offices.”

The city sent a letter to the county formally stating its position, which includes a $6.5 million contribution to a jointly located General District Court.

“The city will commit to building a parking structure, which will offer a minimum of between 250-300 new parking spaces, near the corner of 7th Street and Market Street,” wrote Mayor Mike Signer. “The city will provide the county with up to 100 spaces in the garage to accommodate the future needs of its courts operations.”

At Monday’s City Council meeting, Councilor Kathy Galvin said the structure would be built by the time the new downtown court renovations are completed.

The firm Stantec was hired this year to review the potential economic benefits for Albemarle County of several options related to the courts.

Under Option 1, the county’s existing courthouse would be renovated and new construction would take place at the Levy land that was purchased by the city and county in March 2005. That purchase also involved a parking lot on Market Street between Seventh and Eighth streets Northeast.

Option 2 would see the county build a new General District Court without the city’s involvement. Option 3 would move the courts to a new location. Option 4 would move the county’s administrative offices into a new building. Option 5 would move both.

Because more than 10 speakers signed up for the hearing, supervisors opted to reduce the amount of time for each to two minutes.

“I think it would be a disaster,” said city resident Jalane Schmidt. “I’m a person that does a lot of court support for plaintiffs and defendants, and to think of them and their attorneys scurrying around up and down U.S. 29 to conduct their various [business] would be really compromised by this proposed move.”

All but one speaker urged supervisors to keep the courts in place.

“I am beseeching you to wrap this up,” said Harvey Wilcox, who lives in the Ednam Forest neighborhood. “Leave the courts where they are. Modernize them and negotiate with the city.”

An organizer with Indivisible Charlottesville also asked for the courts to remain.

“It sounds like it would have a detrimental and disproportionate effect on people of color,” said Cat Mayberry, who later appeared before the City Council to make the same argument.

Thomas Olivier, of Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population, said his group also is urging cooperation.

“ASAP has always viewed Albemarle County and Charlottesville as two parts of a single community,” he said. “We believe it better for all of us if the city and county remain closely tied despite recurring contentious episodes.”

However, William Orr, a resident of the Scottsville District, said he thinks the county should explore moving the facilities.

“A little over a year ago, I had to come down and go to the clerk’s office on about three occasions in a month and I had a terrible time finding a parking place,” he said.

Liz Murtaugh, of the public defender’s office, said moving the courts would hurt efforts to create a special docket that would speed up cases involving people with mental illnesses.

William Craddock, a former Albemarle interim supervisor and planning commissioner, said moving the courts or the County Office Building would be a major shift from history.

“The Charlottesville regional political center since 1762 has been the Albemarle County Courthouse,” he said. “The county will not be doing its part as it has tried over the years to keep sprawl from going on U.S. 29.”

The final speaker, Peggy Gilges, showed off a ceremonial dish that was commissioned for the 200th anniversary of Charlottesville.

“It’s 55 years old,” Gilges said. “The gems of Charlottesville are arrayed around the border. Ash Lawn-Highland, the chapel at the University of Virginia, the Rotunda, Monticello and the Albemarle County seat. These are important places that are part of Charlottesville and Albemarle’s shared history.”