A Shift in Focus for the County Courthouse Project

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The Albemarle County Circuit Court building at the corner of Park and E. Jefferson Streets in downtown Charlottesville. Photo: Lisa Martin.

After more than a year of debate over alternative plans to relocate the Albemarle County Court buildings, the Board of Supervisors recently spent several weeks simply listening. The Supervisors convened in December to hear the results of a consultant’s cost/benefit analysis of the various options, to listen to county citizens’ views on the matter, and to absorb both an offer and a warning related to the project.

Armed with both data and opinion, the Board ultimately passed a split motion requesting further study of one part of a potential relocation while putting another part on hold pending negotiations with the city.

Price tags

The county’s consultant on the courts project, Stantec Services Consulting, Inc., presented a summary of the projected capital and operating costs of five options. The options range from renovating the existing court buildings where they stand, to relocating both the courts and the County Office Building (COB) to a site in the county (likely the Rio/29 area where Albemarle Square currently sits).

Stantec calculated that keeping the courts downtown and renovating the existing buildings is the least expensive option ($38 million), whereas constructing a new court system elsewhere would cost between $47 and $52 million because of the need to purchase a site and build a structured parking facility. In addition, annual operating costs are lower for the renovation option ($200,000 to stay downtown vs. $1.1 million to relocate) because of parking structure maintenance and increased security personnel expense at the new location.

The consultants also analyzed the possibility of relocating the County Office Building (alone or in tandem with a courthouse move), with an eye toward spurring economic development in another part of the county. The idea would be to partner with a private entity to create a mixed-use development of moderate to high density in a walkable environment of retail stores, restaurants, apartments, and office space surrounding the county buildings. A standalone COB move is estimated to cost $37 million (net of proceeds from selling the current McIntire Road building), an expenditure that must be added to the cost of whichever option is chosen for the courts to get a full picture of the project’s outlay.

After an analysis of various development scenarios and their potential costs and benefits, Stantec concluded that a courts-only move is limited in its development potential due to the relatively small numbers of employees and stakeholders who frequent the courts on a daily basis. More compelling, according to the report, is the COB move, which would involve many more employees and visitors to support economic activity.

Points of view

Nineteen county residents spoke to the Board during a public hearing on Dec. 19. Across the range of speakers—attorneys, defendant support specialists, activists for racial and social justice, historical preservationists, and other city and county residents—every person argued in favor of keeping the courts downtown and negotiating with the city for additional parking options. Many speakers referred to the Stantec report, praising the Board for their due diligence in commissioning the study and pointing to its conclusions in urging the Board not to move the courthouse.

On the same day, Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer sent a letter to the Board clarifying the city’s position on a potential court move. Signer emphasized the city’s support for co-locating the city and county General District Court facilities downtown, noting that it “has $6.5 million in its Capital Improvement Plan” to help with the costs of the building. In addition, the city committed to financing and building a parking structure near the corner of 7th and Market Streets to alleviate county parking concerns. “The City hopes to re-engage in negotiations with the County to keep the General District Court in Court Square soon,” said Signer.

Potential risks

Beyond pure cost considerations, one significant risk for the courthouse move option is litigation. A Dec. 4 letter to the county from the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association laid out the argument for a potential legal challenge to a Circuit Court move. Such a move of the “county seat” typically requires a referendum vote, which would delay planning until after a vote could be scheduled, and would hinge the project’s viability on county residents voting in favor of the more expensive “move” option.

Virginia law makes an exception to the referendum rule “in the case of the removal of a county courthouse that is not located in a city or town, and is not being relocated to a city or town.” As the courthouse sits on a small parcel of county land, the county has thus far relied on this carve-out to avoid a referendum.

However, the Bar Association has a different interpretation of the Virginia Code. Bruce Williamson, chair of the association’s Courts Committee, likened the situation to a blank tabletop with a salt shaker in the center.  “The way to determine whether the courthouse is ‘in a city or town’ is not who owns the land underneath the courthouse,” Williamson said, “it is where that plot of land is in relation to the boundaries of the city.”  Like the saltshaker on the table, he argued, the courthouse is ‘in the city’ because the city surrounds it, and thus would be subject to a required vote by county citizens. The implied threat is that the city will sue the county if the latter tries to move the county seat.

Stantec officials are concerned that this litigation risk, which they consider to be very high, will scare off potential development partners. Stantec Senior Principal Jeffrey Simon noted during the presentation that, in his experience, developers hate uncertainty. “I don’t know any developer who would spend time writing a high quality proposal only to face three years of sitting and waiting,” he said. County Attorney Greg Kamptner estimated a minimum 2-3 year delay if such a case had to work its way up to the Virginia Supreme Court, and Supervisor Liz Palmer suggested adding an allowance for increased construction costs (due to potential delays) to the plan’s estimate.

On the other hand, the option to remain in Court Square and renovate the courthouse comes with its share of uncertainty as well. BOS Chair Diantha McKeel recalled unforeseen problems during the construction project to enlarge the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court building ten years ago.  “Walls collapsed, resulting in an additional 693 days and a doubling of the cost to complete,” she said, “and that building was not as old as what we’re talking about right now.”

Partners and pre-marketing

After a closed work session on Dec. 20, the Board of Supervisors passed the following motion on a 5-1 vote, with Supervisor Norman Dill opposed:

• The County will impose a moratorium on further discussions of the courts’ potential relocation from downtown until March 2 in response to the letter from the Mayor of the City of Charlottesville.

• The Board directed Stantec to continue to explore the development of and facilities in Albemarle County, such as the County Office Building, a performing arts center, and a convention center.

• The County Executive and the County Attorney will resume negotiations on the Board’s behalf with the City of Charlottesville, on the County’s ownership and the County’s control of the 7th and Market Street parking lot and other related issues and terms.

• Land-use valuation should be recognized in the revenue-sharing formula between the County of Albemarle and the City of Charlottesville.

Supervisors Liz Palmer and Norman Dill had been the two ‘no’ votes on the original decision to hire Stantec. Explaining her switch to a ‘yes’ vote on this motion, Palmer said, “I am going to vote for this, though I would have liked it to be stronger, allowing longer than 60 days to work with the city.  I sincerely hope that we’ll be able to work with them to keep the courts downtown.”

The reference to “land-use valuation” in the motion sets the stage for the Revenue Sharing Agreement issue to be raised during negotiations with the city over parking facilities. Basing the revenue-sharing formula on land-use valuation (instead of market value) could reduce the amount paid by the county to the city by millions of dollars each year.

Based on the motion, Stantec is now authorized to develop a “pre-marketing” strategy for soliciting bids for a possible County Office Building move to the Rio/29 area and other locations. The consultants are expected to present cost and scope data at the Board’s early February meeting, but preliminary estimates put the work on this next phase as taking three to four months at a cost of around $50,000.

1 COMMENT

  1. I would ask the readers and the public to get involved with the current county court house discussion. there seems to be some points or strategies not being fully shared. is this downtown renovation include the purchase of the building across the street from the courthouse. will the purchase be brought up after all the renovations and surely we cannot look back now? the county continues to out spend it’s already bulging tax base due to monumental amounts of development. one of the major downsides of this is a rising cost to taxpayers. we watch as the yancy elementary school is closed and this is where lower income families can survive economically in this rising spend happy for some but cut for others. http://www.c-ville.com/move-county-office-relocation-plan-causes-consternation/#.WlNjedWnEXA

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