Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Robert Tracci

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has voted, 4-2, to officially direct staff to explore re-location of the county’s court system outside of the city of Charlottesville.

“The court facilities expansion project provides an opportunity for the county to consider relocating the court facilities or the county administration offices, or both, into the county,” reads part of a resolution adopted by the board Wednesday.

“New enhanced court facilities will further improve the administration of justice and best serve the needs of all county residents,” reads another portion.

Staff members are also asked to explore “partnership possibilities” that would help lower the county’s cost of a relocation out of Court Square. Possible locations have not been identified.

Their work is to be completed before the county re-enters negotiations with Charlottesville officials over a previous board’s decision to meet Albemarle’s need for additional court space by jointly co-locating a new general district court at the former Levy Opera House.

The city has set aside $7 million for this plan and has offered to build a new $2.5 million parking garage with at least 100 spaces reserved for county use.

At a public hearing on the matter in late October, members of the legal community asked for the courts to remain downtown. Several speakers codified their view in a letter sent Wednesday to supervisors.

“We write in strong and united opposition to any effort to sever our multijurisdictional criminal justice system from this historic location,” reads the letter signed by representatives of eight agencies, including the Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney.

“The Albemarle Board of Supervisors lacks any legal, institutional, substantive, or practical basis to render decisions about the fair and equal administration of justice in our community,” Robert Tracci said in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow.

Tracci said the Board of Supervisors is a legislative body with limited executive power.

“The Board’s effort to substitute its judgment about the impact of dissolving Court Square on the administration of justice to those constitutionally entrusted with this responsibility encroaches upon the separation of powers and infringes the fair and equal justice the Board claims to advance,” he said.

The Board of Supervisors had no public discussion before their vote, but Supervisor Liz Palmer read the full text of the legal letter into the public record.

Albemarle has spent many years seeking a way to plan for increased caseloads projected by a growing population. Earlier this year, the board directed staff to begin looking at other options.

Five alternatives were presented last month. Remaining in Court Square has a current cost estimate to the county of $39.7 million. That compares to $30.9 million for the option that would move the courts to a new location in the county. An option to move the courts to the County Office Building on McIntire Road would cost $32.8 million.

Moving the county’s circuit court from Court Square would require voter approval in a referendum.

The board’s resolution states the fiscal considerations at stake.

“The court facilities expansion project represents a major investment of county taxpayer funds reflecting the county’s largest capital project outlay for at least the last 40 years and into the foreseeable future,” it reads.

However, the letter from the legal community argues that fiscal considerations should be the main driver in the community discussion.

“The co-location of the Albemarle and Charlottesville General District Courts, Circuit Courts, Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts, Commonwealth’s Attorneys, Sheriff’s, Clerk’s, Public Defender’s, Legal Aid and local law offices in and around Court Square clearly serves the interest of justice,” reads the letter.

“It promotes logistical, administrative and judicial efficiency while providing a measure of clarity to the public about where citizens should report for court,” it continues.

In addition to Tracci, the letter was signed by Albemarle Clerk of Court John Zug, Albemarle Sheriff Chip Harding, Charlottesville Clerk of Court Llezelle Dugger, Charlottesville Sheriff James E. Brown III and three others.

Both Palmer and Supervisor Norman Dill voted against the board’s resolution.