Court conundrum: A failed referendum and a wish to avoid one

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Albemarle County officials want to move their courts out of Court Square. Staff photo Albemarle County officials want to move their courts out of Court Square. Staff photo

 

The Board of Supervisors’ interest in relocating Albemarle County’s houses of justice from their current location on Court Square and into their own jurisdiction has been overshadowed with opposition, but county attorney Greg Kamptner thinks he may have found a way to circumvent the need for public approval.

He told supervisors at their May 3 meeting that a bill passed in this year’s General Assembly session, House Bill 2313, says, “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, such removal shall not require a petition or approval by the voters.”

Kamptner says HB2313 applies because Court Square is within Albemarle County and not the corporate limits of Charlottesville. “Before the Board chose that option, it would thoroughly consider the comments and other input received from the public,” he says in an email.

The BOS will hold a work session on June 14, when county staff will give the supes an update on the hiring of a development adviser and exploring partnership possibilities for the court relocation, according to Kamptner.

“The bill was passed 98 to nothing,” says Bruce Williamson, chair of the BAR-Bench Committee of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association. “It is questionable whether or not the local members of the House of Delegates or State Senate understood that this bill might affect the ability of Albemarle County to move the courthouse from where it is to a different location.”

Williamson says, “They have the absolute right to locate their courts where they wish to locate them. The bigger question is is it good for the county and is it good for entire city and county community?”

Since the Albemarle Board of Supervisors passed a 4-2 resolution in November directing staff to explore options to relocate one or both of the courthouses, Williamson has been vocal about his opposition.

In November, he said, “This has been couched as a matter of convenience for lawyers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Adding in travel time to the urban ring would increase costs, reduce the number of cases public defenders could take and keep more people incarcerated while they wait for a hearing.”

And it isn’t only happening here.

In Staunton, a similar issue arose when Augusta County supervisors called for a referendum vote to move their courthouse from the downtown area to Verona. It failed when about two-thirds of county residents voted to keep it in its place, though six of seven supervisors supported the move. In this case, the attorney general has said the court cannot legally expand to a lot across the street from the courthouse, so supervisors are searching for another option.

“As far as what we can do, we’re very limited,” says Tracy Pyles, chair of the Augusta supervisors. “So we’re asking for some changes in the rules governing us.”

Currently, if a referendum vote fails, the board can’t initiate another one for 10 years. While his staff hopes that can be amended, Pyles offers advice to the local BOS.

“If they’re going to go to referendum, I know the mistakes we’ve made and I know the limitations we all work under,” he says. “First of all, try to have your cost estimate as realistic as possible.”

For instance, he believes a major reason the public voted against moving its courthouse was the $45 million price tag, which was the worst-case scenario, and would most likely cost about $35 million.

“We took the estimate of everything, which included things like $3 million for office furniture—that was never going to be the case,” he says.

He also recommends documenting the ongoing operating cost to keep the courthouse in place and to move it, he says, by noting details such as accruals in tax revenue and the cost of lawyers relocating. “Be able to really show why you intend to do it. If you can’t show monetary savings and efficiency improvement, you’re hard-pressed to say why.”

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