County resident outlines voting effects

Published 11:40 am Friday, October 27, 2017

To the Editor:

For the past two years I have been actively following the debate leading to the upcoming referendum on removing the Southampton County courthouse to the Camp Parkway. The County and The City are required by law to provide suitable facilities for the courts and constitutional officers that serve our localities. The courthouse in Courtland has been deemed inadequate by the Court so our leaders have suggested building a new courthouse at a new site. Our leaders also think combining the Franklin and Southampton courts would be a good idea. They have chosen a 59-acre site on the Camp Parkway near the State Police station as the best place should we decide to build a new courthouse. This site was chosen in part because it’s large enough to add a jail and sheriff’s office in the future. However, Virginia law does not allow a County to move a courthouse without approval of the voters through a referendum. This is why the voters of Franklin and Southampton are being asked on Nov. 7  if they want to move the courthouse.

I would like to explain briefly what a “Yes” vote will mean and what a “No” vote will mean and then ask the voters in Franklin and Southampton to consider a few things before casting ballots on this very important matter.

A “Yes” vote will require the County to purchase 59 acres of land and build a new courthouse at a new

site on Camp Parkway and would authorize the County to borrow $26.5 million. Franklin will be responsible for 30 percent of this, or about $8 million plus financing costs, and Southampton will be responsible for 70 percent, or about $18.5 million plus financing costs. Because the leaders in Franklin have indicated they have problems with the Franklin courthouse on Pretlow Street, once the new 44,800-square-foot courthouse is operational, the current courts in both Courtland and Franklin would be closed and all the courts moved into the new facility on Camp Parkway. It should be very concerning to every voter that our leaders have made no plans for the current courthouse facilities if we vote to build a new courthouse.

A “No” vote authorizes nothing. Voting “No” means the County cannot move to the new site and there can be no further vote for 10 years. That is all. Voting “No” does not authorize any amount of money be borrowed for any renovation plans. That must be done by a vote of the County Supervisors. A “No” vote will cause our leaders to consider options to fix the courthouse in Courtland that are perhaps less costly than building a new facility at a new site.

I would like to address this false idea that there is no room for future growth of the courthouse in Courtland. I would like to put this to rest with a few brief facts. The County owns about eight acres on Main Street around the courthouse. There have been public offers to sell to the County at least three more acres of land adjacent to the County properties and the courthouse. Suffolk has a courthouse (60,000 square feet) almost twice the size needed in Courtland with ample parking on four acres. Ask yourself do Southampton/Franklin really need a new 59-acre Criminal Justice Complex? If the answer is no, then please consider voting “No.”

Please consider the effect on the Town of Courtland should we decide to move the courthouse. The traffic created by the people who come to the courthouse every week helps contribute to the economy of the Town of Courtland. The Town also contributes to the court because within an easy walk or a short drive from the court are over 30 businesses and services including lawyers, hardware, auto parts and repair, a river outfitter, a post office, a barber shop, a florist, restaurants, convenience stores, a library, museums, a discount store, gas stations, EMT services, banks and an ATM, a doctor’s office, a volunteer fire department, several churches, many of the County offices and, of course, the Sheriff’s office and jail with all the associated personnel. All of this and more help provide a safe and secure professional and retail center with the courthouse at the center of it all. The sidewalks of Courtland are actually busy some days with people coming and going between places. Also, please consider that the plans for the new court site show space for moving the Sheriff’s office and jail away from Courtland and onto the Camp Parkway at some point leaving an empty space in the Courtland community. Again, think of the effect on Courtland when you vote on Nov. 7 and please consider voting “No.”

August marked the 268th year court has been held at its current site on the Nottoway River. Ours is the third courthouse to be built on the site (1752, 1795, 1834). In that time no courtroom has ever been flooded by the Nottoway River. Renovation plans show all usable floor space at or above the same elevation as the current courtroom floor which again has not flooded in 268 years. It should also be possible to fill a portion or all of the basement and thereby raise the elevation of the building above the floodplain. Please consider that should the Nottoway River actually rise into the courtrooms and across Main Street in Courtland such a flood event would be four feet higher than Hurricane Floyd water levels in 1999. Ladies and gentlemen, a wet courtroom floor will be the least of the worries for the people living and working in Franklin and Southampton if our rivers rise four feet above the 1999 flood level.

Also, if this increasingly hypothetical flood does occur at those catastrophic levels, the new courthouse site next to the Nottoway Swamp on the Camp Parkway would be inaccessible, surrounded by standing water and portions of Highway 58 would be closed. Southampton has been trying to satisfy the Court by planning repairs.

They allocated almost $1 million to make improvements to security in 2016, but the Court said the plans did not go far enough to address their concerns. The County presented the Court with a partial renovation plan earlier this year to address some of the concerns of the Court but it was again rejected by the judges as inadequate. This plan had a price tag of $7.6 million. Hopefully, the County can continue work to improve upon this plan until an acceptable solution can be reached before spending $26 million. With plans to move the jail and Sheriff’ office to the Camp Parkway, a “Yes” vote will be the first domino to fall and we may end up borrowing many millions of dollars more as we move the entire County government over time. In short, a “Yes” vote obligates us to spend up to $26.5 million to move the courthouse while needlessly causing harm to the largest town in the County. In the process we would push over that first domino that will end with a 59-acre government complex on the Camp Parkway that we cannot afford. A “No” vote leaves options available to the County and the City.

I hope my fellow voters in Franklin and Southampton will consider the points I have raised and know the importance of the responsibility that has been given us with this referendum. Our ancestors for many generations before ours decided to repair or replace our courthouse in the same place it has stood for nearly 300 years. Let’s not be the generation that abandons this place.

Please consider voting “No” on Nov. 7.

Joe Vick