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STILL NO VERDICT ON COURTHOUSE

January 23, 2011 12:35 am

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Fredericksburg sheriff's Cpl. David Sullivan looks at peeling paint in the jury room of the 1852 portion of the city's landmark judicial center. lo012311courthouseFILE2.jpg

Fredericksburg's judicial complex has pre-Civil War pizzazz, but that's no help with case volume or security. lf012311courthouse.jpg

The oldest section of Fredericksburg's judicial complex dates from 1852. Judges are calling for a modern facility.

BY EMILY BATTLE

Fredericksburg is under no court order to build a new judicial complex at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.

Judges have been pushing for years for a more modern facility that better meets the needs of today's criminal justice system and the volume of cases that regional growth has driven into city courtrooms.

Virginia law gives circuit court judges the power to initiate a process that could put localities under order to make courts safe for public use.

But last year, the General Assembly placed language in the state budget that allows localities to delay any court-ordered court upgrades until June 30, 2012.

As they proceed with efforts to find a solution for improving Fredericksburg's three courts, City Council members have asked local legislators in the current General Assembly session to support extending that locality-initiated delay another two years.

At a work session earlier this month, council members were told by Circuit Judge Gordon Willis that they had a "lawful duty" to provide adequate court facilities.

"If you neglect your lawful duty then there can be repercussions," Willis said at the meeting.

The courts issue dates back almost half a decade. As it remains on the council's agenda, here are a few things to keep in mind about the paths this project has taken in recent years.

Why does the council think we need new courts, anyway?

Back in 2005, the late Circuit Judge John W. Scott Jr. sent a letter asking the city to build a new courts complex.

In response, the city hired Moseley Architects to perform a study on what kind of court facilities would be needed to meet Fredericksburg's current and future courts needs.

That study came out in 2007 and cost $87,000.

Moseley had projected a caseload of about 2,600 for Fredericksburg Circuit Court by 2010, but the city was already exceeding that in 2007, and in 2008 caseloads blew past it, topping off at 3,163, according to statistics from the Virginia Supreme Court.

The load was down to 2,470 in 2009, but statistics available through the first three quarters of 2010 show caseloads on track to grow again.

Similar analyses of the city's general district and juvenile and domestic relations courts drove Moseley's recommendation that the city's court system would need significantly more space for a growing staff and judicial activities in the years to come.

In addition, courts officials have made the case that the current courts facilities have many safety shortcomings and are inadequate for the types of cases and criminals that the city faces today.

Council members met in closed session in October to review a report on the courts' security shortcomings.

Councilman Fred Howe asked Willis repeatedly at the work session if he would be open to interim improvements that could address the safety issues only. Willis basically said he wouldn't turn down new resources for the courts, but warned that he would rather see money put toward a long-term solution than a "Band-Aid."

Could Fredericksburg partner with another locality to build a courts complex?

In its 2007 report, Moseley Architects made clear that the growth in circuit court caseloads was not tied to Fredericksburg's relatively small population.

The firm's analyses consistently found that Fredericksburg's caseloads were substantially higher than those of other Virginia cities with similar populations.

"Fredericksburg is not an isolated city, but the hub of a rapidly growing region that includes Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline and King George Counties," the report states.

This is why the idea of joining with a neighboring county to build a joint courts facility has come up in this debate.

No one has started any serious talks toward that end yet, and Willis cautioned council members not to spend time on that option, because he didn't think it was plausible.

Multi-locality courts facilities do exist in Virginia, but are not very common.

Have they figured out where to build a new courthouse yet?

No. Over the years, at least half a dozen locations have come in and out of consideration.

The Moseley report back in 2007 recommended building courts around the current site of the general district court on Princess Anne Street.

Council members spent more than a year and more than $100,000 planning to put the courts at the site of the Princess Anne Street post office before rejecting that plan as too expensive, then spending $97,000 with a new consulting firm that recommended the same site that Moseley had pointed to.

Late last year, though, council members agreed to put out a request for court-building proposals from the private sector that doesn't specify a location.

Where do we go from here?

Proposals from potential court-building firms are due to City Hall by March 1. More than 25 firms were represented at an informational meeting city staff held in December on the request.

Once proposals come in, city staff plan to have presentations on those proposals before the council and the public.

Toward the end of March, city staff envision the council choosing a short list of firms to submit more detailed proposals, with the goal of selecting a final firm and building plan in July.

But expect debate on this issue to continue through the winter. As has happened in the past with this long-running project, plans could change.

Emily Battle: 540/374-5413
Email: ebattle@freelancestar.com





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