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BY ROBYN SIDERSKY
Fredericksburg residents this week will have their first chance to weigh in on proposals the city has received for building a new courthouse.
A public hearing is slated for 7 p.m. Tuesday in council chambers of City Hall, and city officials hope it will draw a good crowd.
"That's the focus of the evening: for citizens to provide comment or input to members of City Council," City Manager Beverly Cameron said.
Five teams of developers submitted eight proposals, ranging in cost from $31 million to $41 million. They were presented to the City Council in March, and city staff has been reviewing them since.
A consultant was hired to evaluate the proposals, but so far the council has refused to make that report public.
The courthouse issue arose in 2005, when Circuit Judge John W. Scott Jr. sent a letter signed by all eight circuit judges asking for a new court complex. Courts officials say the current facilities have many safety shortcomings and are inadequate for the types of cases and criminals that the city faces today.
In response, the city hired Moseley Architects to study what kind of facilities would meet the system's needs. That study found a need for more space to handle a growing caseload and staff.
There are three city courts of varying age and condition downtown: Circuit Court, General District Court and Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court. The proposals call for consolidating at least the Circuit and General District courts at one site.
At least four of the seven council members agree it's time for a new courthouse. The building at 815 Princess Anne St. that houses the Circuit Court dates to 1852.
"I think Fredericksburg is going to need a courthouse at some time," Mayor Tom Tomzak said. "There's never going to be an ideal time."
"The simple fact of the matter is that it was established some time ago that the existing courthouse cannot be adequately renovated for space or security," said Councilwoman Mary Katherine Greenlaw.
"Most people think it's just a decision that has to be made, and we need to make it and get on with it."
Greenlaw pointed out that interest rates are good right now and said the city should take advantage of that.
"Putting it off is just going to cost us more money in the end," she said.
But Councilman Fred Howe III said now isn't the right time because it will force the city to raise taxes 10 percent to 15 percent. He wants to put the issue to voters in a referendum.
"I'd say it warrants a majority, or at least the opportunity for the majority of voters to chime in," he said.
Tuesday night's public hearing will include a presentation by city staff of the process the city has followed and brief summaries of each proposal. Then the staff and council members will take comments and questions from residents.
Cameron said that while residents are welcome to ask questions, city officials probably won't be able to provide a lot of answers.
"I would anticipate that many questions would require additional research," he said.
Cameron said staff will make an effort to record the comments and respond to questions in writing as quickly as possible.
The developers will not be part of the presentation, he said.
The city set up an email account for the public to send in comments about the courthouse proposals, but it hasn't received many.
Tomzak said he's gotten five to 10 emails, all negative. He thinks the people who support a new courthouse don't email and probably won't show up for Tuesday's session.
Other council members hope the public brings a range of opinions.
"I think we have enough people in this city that have been outspoken previously on other issues and need to be outspoken on this issue, pro or con, one way or the other," said Councilwoman Bea Paolucci. "I just want a dialogue started."
She said she thinks the success of this public hearing--whether a lot of people come out or not--will determine whether more are held on the issue.
"Any time you hold a public hearing like this, you hope to get a good representative sample and opinion--hopefully thoughtful opinion," Councilman George Solley said.
Several council members said the developers have submitted high-quality proposals.
"The teams were excellent, every one of them," Greenlaw said. "We owe it to those teams to come to a decision."
How much of that decision-making process will be public is still an issue of debate among council members.
A consultant's evaluation of the proposals has not been made public, and the council went into closed session last month to discuss it, citing confidentiality and the desire for the city to maintain a competitive balance in the bidding process.
Because the city is considering a public-private partnership to build the courthouse, it is exempt from some Freedom of Information Act requirements. But Howe, one of three council members to vote against the closed session, has pushed his fellow council members to make the report public.
Howe said the report was paid for by taxpayers, and they should be able to see it. And even council members who voted for the closed session acknowledge that they need to build public support for the project.
Cameron said he hopes the council will narrow down the list of proposals by the end of the month. The topic is on the agenda for the City Council's May 24 work session.
"I don't know if they will succeed in making final decisions regarding the short list that night, but that's the goal," he said.
Council members said they think they'll be able to achieve Cameron's goal.
"I'm sure we won't have consensus when we walk in the door, and hopefully we will when we walk out," Solley said.
Robyn Sidersky 540/374-5413
This plan calls for one centralized building for all three courts on the site of the fire station at the corner of Princess Anne and Wolfe streets. The courtrooms would be stacked on three floors, and the basement level would be for office space and parking. It would have room for five courtrooms but be able to expand to a sixth, if needed. Construction would take about 33 months and cost $31 million, not counting the $5 million to $6 million cost of building a new fire station at the site of the old regional jail.W.M. JORDAN
This plan would use land already owned by the city and not move the fire station. The Circuit Court would be on the site of the existing Juvenile and Domestic Relations building and the General District and J&DR courts would be together in another building on the site of the existing General District Court building. The project would be done in three phases, and the three courts would not be relocated at the same time. The cost of the project is $32.6 million and would take 36 months. This plan also includes renovating the Renwick building, which is where the Circuit Court is now.HENSEL PHELPS
This plan would tear down the Executive Plaza at 601 Caroline St. and replace it with a new courts building, which would use the parking garage next to it. All three courts would be in one building, with five courtrooms and the ability to expand to add three more. It would cost $38 million and take 25 months.FIRST CHOICE
First Choice offers two locations on Princess Anne--one where the fire station is now, and one where the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court is now. The J&DR location would put the courts in two different buildings and connect them with a tunnel. The fire station location would put the Circuit Court and General District Court in a new building, but would have to find a new place to put the fire station. The plan suggests putting it on Amelia Street. The J&DR location would cost $36 million and take 30 months and the fire station location would cost $41 million and take 36 months.DONLEY'S
Donley's proposes three sites, each costing $34 million. The first would be where the fire station is. All three courts would be in the same building. It would take 44 months to complete. The second would be where the Executive Plaza is on Caroline Street and would demolish the current building. It would take 37 months to complete. The third location would be on Sophia Street and have riverfront views and be central to downtown. It would take 36 months to finish.ON THE NET: To read the full courthouse proposals, visit fredericksburg.com
WHERE: Council chambers, City Hall, 715 Princess Anne St.COMMENT: You may email comments about the proposals to courtproposal comments@fredericksburg va.gov.