County supervisors on Wednesday pledged action on a $43 million overhaul of the county’s courts system that has been under discussion for more than a decade.
Officials said a decision will be made this summer on how to proceed with the project, which is expected to drive up the real estate tax rate for county residents at a time when property values are projected to increase by nearly 3 percent.
Safety concerns, aging mechanical systems and capacity issues lend the long-deferred decision a sense of urgency. The general district and circuit court buildings were constructed and overhauled over several decades, with the last renovation taking place in 1986.
Since then, the county’s population has nearly doubled, and is expected to balloon from just over 100,000 to about 133,000 by 2030, according to Fairfax-based Dewberry Architects, who conducted a $40,000 study of the complex in 2012.
“I’m a little frustrated at this entire process to be honest with you,” said Denise Lunsford, the county’s chief prosecutor. “This has been going on since before I had children and my oldest is about to turn 14.”
At issue is whether to renovate and expand courts downtown or construct a new courthouse elsewhere.
Judges, court workers, lawyers and local officials the board invited for advice on how to proceed soundly rejected a proposal to move courts from the historic complex on Court Square to a suggested location off U.S. 29.
“It’s not just about being in the place Thomas Jefferson practiced [law] ... it’s the ease of working there,” Lunsford said.
The option favored by judges and court workers would move the county’s general district courts and commonwealth’s attorney’s office into the adjacent Levy Opera House — which is jointly owned by the city and county — and expands the circuit court into both sides of the current courthouse facility. That project is expected to take seven years to complete.
Moving the complex elsewhere would require a referendum because the land the building sits on is technically the county seat. The central location benefits residents of southern Albemarle who would lose out if the complex were moved north, Lunsford said. So, too, would court workers.
A cottage industry of court services – from private law firms to probation and parole and offender aid and restoration — all have located near the complex to streamline operations because they handle Charlottesville and Albemarle County cases, said public defender Jim Hingeley.
“The efficiencies of the current situation are enormous and the inefficiencies of the proposed situation are enormous,” he said of moving the courts.
Lawyers and court workers who now may spend five minutes walking to their next hearing could end up with a 45-minute commute from offices downtown to a relocated courts complex, he said. The move also could take a toll on the docket of cases the courts are able to hear at a time when case loads are creeping up, said Albemarle County Circuit Judge Cheryl Higgins.
“Unless cloning becomes successful, I don’t think we could add one more case on the docket that we don’t already have,” Higgins said, holding up Tuesday’s schedule.
Any hiccups in scheduling would hit the county’s general district court especially hard, said Judge William Barkley.
“We’re a fast-food restaurant,” Barkley said. “That’s what it is.”
Judge Robert Downer said he’d like to see the county and city consider merging their general district courts to further economize operations. Downer said he and Barkley frequently will hear cases scheduled in the other jurisdictions.
“We may work in different jurisdictions but we’re all part of the same judicial district,” Downer said. “We could go ahead and hear those cases and get those citizens heard and out of there.”
Supervisors questioned whether the downtown location could accommodate the courts’ parking needs as the population increased.
Charlottesville Albemarle Bar Association President Palma Pustilnik said complaints about the difficulties of finding parking downtown were “anecdotal.”
“I sometimes mutter under my breath on rainy days when I do have to walk, but I can always find a space,” she said. “Parking is not an issue, and if we’re concerned about 10 years out, there are things we could consider.”