Courthouse Quandary: Should They Stay or Should They Go?

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The Albemarle County Circuit Court (right) and General District Court buildings on Court Square in downtown Charlottesville. Photo: Lisa Martin

It happens to most of us at some point—a traffic ticket, a landlord dispute, perhaps a conflict with a contractor—and we end up in court. On the assigned date we make our way to the courthouse, which for all residents, city and county alike, is situated on a bustling and congested square block right in the middle of downtown Charlottesville. It’s been this way for two and a half centuries, ever since the first Circuit Court building was erected on what is now Court Square in 1763. But for county court-goers, that may be about to change.

This article is the first in a series, County Line: The Charlottesville Albemarle Divide.

Badly in need of expansion, security upgrades, and accessible parking, Albemarle County’s General District and Circuit Court buildings have been the subject of more than two decades of study and debate. County staff and outside consultants have assessed the pros and cons of options ranging from an in-place overhaul to pulling up stakes and moving out of Court Square entirely. Opinions on the best course of action are split, and all of the choices are costly, but the county Board of Supervisors now seems poised to make a decision on the thorny issue of whether to renovate or relocate.

Court of Public Opinion

For county residents, the first and most obvious obstacle to arriving for one’s day in court is the dearth of downtown parking. Besides hit-or-miss curbside parking, only two public parking garages serve the hundreds of citizens, court staff, and supporting constituencies who make their way to Court Square each day. Ann Mallek, Albemarle Board of Supervisors (BOS) representative for the White Hall district and the longest-serving current board member, experienced the parking struggle first-hand when she brought her elderly mother down to the courts after her father died.

“My mom could not walk five blocks, and I couldn’t just drop her off,” she said. “It’s an untenable situation. Residents are always asking me to please move county services where they can more easily take advantage of them, and my job is to represent the citizens of my district.”

The county General District Court alone handles 40,000 cases per year, and court employees relate anecdotally that parking difficulties are the leading excuse for people running late to their court appointments. Though the issue has been a primary driver of courthouse-related discussions in years past, the city and county have been unable to negotiate a solution that increases parking options.

But parking woes are only a symptom of the larger problem. A more fundamental dilemma lies in accommodating the increasing caseload of the courts. As the county population has grown over the last two decades, so has the volume of cases, and the pressure is growing. A 2015 feasibility study by Moseley Architects projects a 45 percent growth in county’s General District caseload by 2035, which translates to the equivalent of two additional courtrooms needed to accommodate them all.

County Circuit Court Clerk John Zug noted that contested civil cases involving a jury trial are currently being scheduled as much as a full year out. However, he pointed to an important element of the problem: additional courtrooms would not shorten the extended delays in setting trial dates unless accompanied by additional judges, for whom the funding must be appropriated by the Virginia General Assembly.

Order in the Court

Perhaps the most critical and least-discussed deficiency in the current Court Square facility is its security. The Moseley study found problems with safety as well as circulation and space allocation, flagging the courthouse’s multiple public access doors without adequate security provisions and the minimal separation between defendants, judges, and the public as they traverse the halls. Bailiffs routinely march prisoners up from the basement cells and down the main hallway of the General District Court building, right past the public waiting in line at the clerk’s window.

“Victims and accused are jammed in together, making for uncomfortable situations,” said Mallek. “It does not give people a sense of being well cared-for.” The study recommends that a modern court building would include features such as enclosed, secure, basement-level parking for judges, a central detainee holding area, a sally port for transferring detainees to and from vehicles, and a central public lobby with security checkpoints.

Jim Camblos, former Commonwealth’s Attorney for Albemarle County. Photo: Lisa Martin.

None of these court deficiencies are new, and all have worsened during the decades of discussion. Jim Camblos, a retired prosecutor who worked in Charlottesville for 40 years and served as county Commonwealth’s Attorney for 16 of those, was a member of the original six-member committee tasked with assessing the courts issue back in the mid-1990s. After many hours of meetings over the course of several years, he came to a few conclusions.

“It was clear that the city and county had totally different perspectives on whether or not parking was a problem, and they weren’t going to agree.” said Camblos. “The attorneys all have their own parking spaces, so they tend to dismiss the issue.” But the larger problem was just as evident. “Even at that point it was obvious that the county had outgrown the courthouse and would have to move out of downtown.” Despite the uproar such a move would cause, he said, “the first obligation of the Board of Supervisors is to the citizens of Albemarle County.”

In recent months, the BOS has been getting serious. Last fall, former County Executive Tom Foley presented the board with several options of varying cost and scope. The choices ranged from a renovation and expansion of the existing buildings in Court Square ($40 million), to moving one or both courts to the County Office Building area on McIntire Road ($27-$33 million), to moving entirely out of downtown to a location in the county’s Urban Ring ($31 million). The board directed its staff to suspend negotiations with the city on the downtown option, and resolved to “explore and pursue opportunities related to the relocation of the county court facilities.”

Liz Palmer, Samuel Miller district representative to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. Photo: Lisa Martin

The vote on the resolution to proceed was 4 to 2. Liz Palmer, BOS representative from the Samuel Miller district, was one of the two ‘no’ votes. “There is no reason to waste money on studies because the main purpose of the courts is the administration of justice, and for that the courts should stay downtown,” she said. “The poorest and least educated among us most need centrally located, accessible court services.”

Palmer was particularly disappointed with the information provided on the cost of the options. “Yes, the Urban Ring option was cheaper, but there were big holes in the estimates. No cost was included for buying land out there, and there were way too many hypotheticals.” Palmer said her constituents tell her that moving is an outrageous plan because it’s a social justice issue.

Judgement Call

Charlottesville’s Circuit and General District Courts are housed within a block of the county courts, and the square is surrounded by the offices of law firms and legal support services. The one hundred or so court system employees are flanked by over four hundred attorneys in the historic district. The Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court sits on a corner of the square and is used jointly by both the city and county, employing a single, unified clerk’s office. Many—some say most—who work within the judicial system would prefer that the county and city court buildings remain where they are in Court Square.

In a letter to the BOS in response to its November resolution, county Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci strongly opposed the relocation proposal. He and seven co-signers from across the judicial system, including both city and county Clerks of Court and both sheriffs, argued that a move would negatively affect the quality of justice provided to the citizenry.

“Justice is best promoted by judicial efficiency, timeliness, public convenience, and court safety,” Tracci wrote, and asserted that the co-location of all the courts and legal services together downtown promotes those efficiencies. Tracci says the county is overstepping its role by not listening to those who actually serve the interests of justice in the community. “These views have been largely ignored by the Albemarle Board of Supervisors,” he said, and questioned whether wider support of the plan to move exists. “Who in our community has stepped forward to publicly advocate dissolving Court Square?”

Bruce Williamson, Chair of the Courts Location committee of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association, says there is a misperception that opposition to a move is based on the interests of the lawyers. “Keeping all of the courts downtown is better for everyone who uses the courts—prosecutors, judges, sheriffs, Legal Aid, public defenders, and all of their clients. It’s not unusual for a prosecutor and defense counsel to appear in three different courts all in the same day, and that efficiency would be lost [if they were separated].”

Williamson said that a cooperative spirit would be lost as well. “There’s a sense that downtown Charlottesville is the hub of the community. You really do undertake a change, moving in the direction of two communities rather than one, if you move the court system for the county away from downtown.”

The city also raised the question of whether or not the county has the right to move the courts at all. Voters typically must approve a move of the Circuit Court—whose location is referred to as the “county seat”—at the ballot box via referendum. However, the Virginia General Assembly recently softened that rule by exempting within-county Circuit Court moves. Because Court Square is located on a small carve-out of land owned by the county, not the city, the county is free to relocate the courthouse to another part of the county without a referendum if it so chooses.

The Jury is Out

County staff have now shifted their focus from the narrower issues, like parking, to the big picture. Interim County Executive Doug Walker, charged with providing all the pertinent information the board needs to make its decision, is taking the long view. “We have to consider the long-term efficiency of any proposed solution,” he said. “That means not only providing modern court facilities for taxpayers and court-users, but also looking at the viability of stimulating more economic activity in the county.”

Doug Walker, Interim County Executive for Albemarle County. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Walker is currently overseeing several outside consultant studies that will produce recommendations for the board members. “It’s important not to rely on anecdotes or intuition in this process,” he said. “We need data and expertise to evaluate this decision.” The goal is a transparent process that produces reports that the public can read and judge for themselves.

The major ongoing studies include:

Another look at the “stay downtown” plan: Remaining in Court Square is the option with the highest price tag—$9 million more than moving out—partly because of the historic nature of the structures and the uncertainty of what contractors will find during the renovation. One cost-saving modification would be to reduce the breadth of the Circuit Court expansion by dispensing with a planned addition. Another is to replace two county-owned houses at the intersection of 4th and High Streets with a new facility for the General District Court, including space behind the building for expansion or parking. “These choices will have cost implications,” said Walker, “but also performance implications.”

An assessment of “adjacency”: Responding to concerns that a county move would disrupt the efficiency of the court system as a whole, Moseley architects are studying this issue in conjunction with the National Center for State Courts. The latter are experts in understanding how courts work and will document the interrelationships between the county and city courts, as well as other court-related entities such as the Public Defender, Commonwealth’s Attorney, Legal Aid, and Sheriff’s offices.

The goal is to figure out just how inter-dependent these entities really are, in part by interviewing the users and stakeholders themselves, to assess the true operational costs—transportation expense, delays in hearings, etc.—of any plan to separate the city and county courts. “We’re trying to understand these concerns empirically, using an analysis of how these relationships work, to make the most responsible decision for taxpayers,” said Walker.

A move and a partner:  A substantial part of the county’s current focus is on determining whether moving the courthouse from downtown Charlottesville out to the Urban Ring is a viable choice. “If we are looking at the most cost effective way of solving the problem of the courts, then we have to examine the potential economic benefit of a partnership,” said Walker.

Using the area at the intersection of Rio Road and Route 29 as a test site, Stantec Services Consulting, Inc. is exploring possibilities for a public-private partnership (or P3) to build the new courthouse and stimulate a wider redevelopment project in the county. Stantec is a large international engineering, design, and project management firm whose work places special emphasis on community partnerships.

P3’s come in many forms, but the idea is to lessen the financial burden on the county by partnering with a private firm. As an example, the county could invest in infrastructure like roadwork, water/sewer systems, and parking, and that investment would reduce the up-front costs for private investors who could then develop support businesses such as office, retail, or residential space in the area. Another approach could enlist a private company to build the courthouse and then lease it back to the county over a long period of time, so the private firm has a guaranteed tenant that then supports the overall larger development.

Those who oppose the county courts relocation see the emphasis on a P3 as misguided. In Robert Tracci’s view, “The board appears determined to subordinate the criminal justice community, defendants, and the citizens we serve to promises of speculative, undefined, and unspecified ‘economic development.’ Its decision to proceed forward in the face of near-unanimous opposition to relocating the courts reflects a mindset that places economic development above the needs of citizens.”

May it Please the Court

Supervisor Mallek is optimistic about the current path, wherever it leads. “We are working furiously to get the information we need,” she said. “There’s more confidence in the materials we have now, more determination to do something than there has been in the last twenty years.” Mallek says that it is important to keep the decision “grounded in the math.” “There are so many things we cannot do as it is. I would like to hire a dozen more police officers instead of spending more to stay downtown. How we provide services for our county residents is the really important thing.”

The capital budget for the project is $40 million, the largest non-education outlay in the last several decades, and the funding has already been incorporated into the county’s Capital Improvement Program. County officials hope to hear recommendations from the outside consultants by November or December, followed thereafter by BOS action.

Albemarle Circuit Court. Photo: Lisa Martin.

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