Courthouse options considered

Published 9:54 am Monday, May 1, 2017

Whether to renovate the Southampton Circuit Courthouse or build a new courts complex was the first topic of discussion at the Southampton County Board of Supervisors Workshop on Friday morning. The meeting took place in the Regional Workforce Development Center at Paul D. Camp Community College.

County administrator Mike Johnson started with a brief history of the courthouse, which was built in 1834 near the Nottoway River in Courtland. Since then, the building has experienced various additions and improvements.

He added that owing to state code, Franklin’s population size permits the use of the circuit court, and it reimburses the county for 30 percent of expense.  That explained the presence of City Manager Randy Martin and Mayor Frank Rabil, both who gave input during the workshop.

As noted in the Power Point, since the early 1900s state code has enabled Circuit Court judges to compel jurisdictions to update and upgrade court facilities. That statute has been used in the past 15 years in localities such as Portsmouth, Williamsburg/James City County and Rockbridge County.

The courts complex has been showing its age, said Johnson. Examples: The HVAC equipment is 20-plus years old and coming to the end of its usefulness. Further, the system struggles to maintain a comfortable interior climate.

The location also makes the courthouse vulnerable to periodic flooding from the Nottoway River, which is in the backyard.

Security shortcomings were also noted: An under-served security screening and no CCTV to monitor pedestrian traffic are two examples. Also, Virginia Courthouse Facility Guidelines require that “Judges should never be provided unsecured parking in the public parking area and judges’ parking spaces should never be identified.”

A report from the architectural firm PMA determined that the courthouse doesn’t meet required security and safety guidelines, that it’s not in good repair and won’t meet future space needs.

In short, the courts may issue an order to compel improvements. If Southampton County were to say no, the word from on high would be, “Oh yes, you are.” Johnson referred to that as the “nuclear option.”

To refuse would mean that the county would lose all control of the situation and have to make renovations or build a new courthouse.

Should the county decide to build a courthouse at a new site not adjacent to the existing one, state code requires approval through a referendum.

On the ballot this November, voters could be asked: “Shall the courthouse be removed to …, and shall the Board of Supervisors be permitted to spend X amount of money therefor?” The choices are either yes or no.

Joe Vick of Capron said he felt that the matter has already been decided without a public hearing. In fact, Johnson stated that the matter would be decided by the voters, not any county officials.

In June 2016, the county got six proposal and four firms were interviewed. Among other factors, Moseley Architects was chosen. Architect Tony Bell, a company representative, was present to answer questions along with Bruce McCloy of the Timmons Group. Later that morning, Davenport and Co. discussed financing matters.

Should voters say yes, then the design phase would be from about December 2017 through October 2018, followed by bidding in those last three months. Construction could begin in February 2019, with occupation in June 2020.

In addition to showing design plans for a possible new building, Bell pointed out the several site choices, several of which were quickly discarded because of location either by the river or landlocked. Site 4,  which would be on land-side of Jerusalem Road, is estimated to cost $23.46M. The new courts building alone would be $13.48M.

Site 7, which would be near the Virginia State Trooper’s office on Camp Parkway, could cost $26.46M.

Expansion and renovation of the existing complex could be at $25.92M.

Throughout the meeting, both county and city officials as well as members of the public asked questions regarding the reasons for having to either renovate or build a new courthouse, how much would it cost, etc.