As the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors nears a decision on whether to relocate the county’s courts from downtown Charlottesville, they learned more Wednesday about the costs of both moving the facilities as well as renovating in place.
The total cost estimate to build a new general district court at the Levy Opera House site with participation by the city of Charlottesville is now at $43.6 million for a 91,900-square-foot facility. That includes Charlottesville contributing $6.9 million to bring Albemarle’s cost to $36.3 million. The amount factors in the sale of some land.
A second option would see construction of a 77,400-square-foot general district court at the Levy site.
“We took out the idea of the city co-locating with us,” said Trevor Henry, the county’s director of facilities and environmental services.
This option would have a cost of $38.5 million, including $300,000 to purchase the city’s share of the land at the Levy site.
Moving the county’s Circuit Court and General District Court to a new location would have an estimated cost of $41.9 million for an 88,000-square-foot building. This would require land to be purchased and would include a parking garage.
“We’ve talked about Rio Road and U.S. 29 being a target area for relocation,” said Xuan Phan, a project manager with Stantec. The firm has been hired by the county for $328,824 to study the economic benefits of using the relocation of the courts and possibly the county office building.
“The reason we added structured parking is that the county has expressed a desire to develop a walkable community and using a civic building as a catalyst for that,” Phan said. “Lots of surface parking is not consistent with a walkable community.”
That brings the estimated range for relocation to $46.9 million to $51.5 million. However, this also factors in the sale of the county’s share of nearby properties for $3.1 million. That does not include the existing courthouse.
Phan said the cost of relocating could be reduced if the county enters into a public-private partnership to develop the site. Stantec’s analysis of moving the county office building is not yet complete.
Supervisors will hold another work session Nov. 16 at which they will discuss a report of how the existing courts systems and their support services work downtown. This adjacency study has been conducted by the National Center for State Courts and is also expected to inform the decision.
All of the materials produced by Stantec are expected to be available for the board’s Dec. 6 meeting. Individual supervisors will meet in private sessions to discuss financial modeling with the consultants on Dec. 12. A final work session is scheduled for Dec. 13 and a public hearing for Dec. 18. Supervisors will take action on Dec. 20.
Supervisors Norman Dill and Liz Palmer have both voted against the idea. Supervisors Ann H. Mallek, Diantha McKeel, Rick Randolph and Brad Sheffield support the exploration of moving the courts.
Sheffield leaves office at the end of December. His successor, Supervisor-elect Ned Gallaway, has not yet indicated a preference.
Dill said the cost estimates for relocation should recognize revenue the county would lose if privately held land is taken off the tax rolls.
“We wouldn’t be getting the income from the real estate taxes on whatever piece of land we’re using,” Dill said.
Phan said the fiscal impact model will take that into consideration when it is shown to supervisors in December.
Supervisors were also briefed on the possibility of building a new general district court at the intersection of Fourth Street Northeast and East High Street, but they discarded this option.
One issue for proponents of moving the court is security for judges and segregated parking.
“That could be located within a building or within a fenced enclosure, but one place it should not be is adjacent to other citizen parking with a sign marked ‘judge’s parking,’” said Tony Bell of Moseley Architects. “That’s something we ought to stay away from.”
Randolph wanted a cost breakdown of how much it would cost to provide security for each option.
“I would feel it incumbent on us to ensure those judges are going to be able to park in a secure location and enter both buildings and not put them at risk by having to be visible in entering either building,” Randolph said.
Dill said there are fewer risks with continuing downtown.
“What is it going to cost when we don’t know where it is, we don’t know when it’s going to be, we don’t know how long it’s going to take to build it and there is a much higher potential risk?” Dill said. “Maybe savings, too, given the right circumstances.”
However, Mallek said there are also unknowns about developing at the Levy site.
“What is under the ground under the annex is another uncertainty,” Mallek said. “It is one of those things that when you find rock or sewer or something that nobody knew was there, that’s a bit of a problem.”
Palmer said the estimates should take into account the cost of potential lawsuits from the legal community.
“Litigation is going to be an issue here at some point on some level, and there’s really no way to predict what that’s going to look like,” Palmer said.
Bruce Williamson, the chairman of the Charlottesville Albemarle Bar Association’s Courts Location Committee, said his organization wants the courts to remain in place.
“That is the benefit not for the lawyers but for the benefit of everyone involved in the court system starting from litigants up to judges and everybody in between,” Williamson said.
Williamson noted that the draft adjacency study found that 83.5 percent of surveyed stakeholders were “not supportive” of moving the county courts and that 63.5 percent are “extremely supportive” of remaining in Court Square.
Williamson had no comment on whether he or the Bar Association would support litigation over moving the courts.
The city’s preference is for Albemarle courts to remain in place. Last November, Charlottesville purchased land at the corner of Ninth and Market streets for a future parking garage that would include an adjacent lot that is jointly owned by both jurisdictions. The city has offered to pay for the construction and offer spaces to the county.
“The City’s offer still stands,” City Manager Maurice Jones said in an email.