City council reviews courthouse options

Published 10:00 am Friday, July 13, 2018

Because the City of Franklin has a stake in the Southampton Courthouse, which has been figured at about 32 percent, that means the decisions in the county affecting the property also include the city. The connection is made possible through state code, which allows that any independent municipality with a population under 10,000 people must share both use and costs of a circuit court with its adjacent county. This has been going on for Franklin since it became a separate city in 1961.

Last year, Southampton County residents overwhelmingly voted in a referendum to not build a new courthouse away from the existing one. This essentially came about because pressure was coming from judicial circles to establish a safer facility. Instead, the site would be renovated in the Courtland town limits, preferably as close to the original site as possible. Last month, the Board of Supervisors narrowed architectural options down to three.

On Tuesday evening, Southampton County Administrator Mike Johnson reviewed all options with City Council members present; only Bobby Cutchins and Greg McLemore were absent.

One of those choices, created by the Moseley Architects, is known as Option 5C. This plan, which was developed during the May supervisors’ meeting, would be to construct a new building to accommodate all courts functions on property that would have to be acquired along Court Street. The estimated cost is still to be determined, but is expected to be comparable to another option plus the cost of obtaining the property. Rather than remove the Bell House for more parking, Johnson recommended leaving it to “minimize adverse impacts on the historic Main Street views,” and instead create parking at the front law of the office center.

As with the supervisors, the consensus of council is that option is the preferred one, according to Mayor Frank Rabil. Further, the panel has “significant reservations about Option 7.”

That plan is to construct a new building adjacent to the existing courthouse. This would mean acquiring the Seven Gables property next door. Further, the ‘60s wing would be demolished for parking. The new building would be in the floodway, and mitigation would be needed. The estimated cost is $23M, but that doesn’t include property acquisition or repurposing the existing facility.

In addition to the expense, there would still be the matter of an engineering study to mitigate any potential flooding from the Nottoway River in the backyard.

Johnson told the council that if everyone decides on a plan in August, then it would 10 to 12 months to get project designed and engineered. Bidding would not start until Fall 2019. There would be 18 months construction, so the site would be open in early 2020-21. The city, he added, would start paying in 2023.

On a question of ownership, city attorney said he couldn’t state for certain at this time, but “off the cuff, the law is designed that we don’t get ownership, but I will certainly look into it.”