County was aware of ‘contiguous’ option for courthouse

Published 7:58 pm Tuesday, May 21, 2019

[Editor’s note: This is the third part of a story concerning the Southampton County Courthouse.]


Southampton County Administrator Mike Johnson, in an email to The Tidewater News on Monday, confirmed that the county had been aware of the “contiguous” option ever since the Board of Supervisors began discussing the courthouse project. He explained that this option is specifically referenced in the second paragraph of Virginia Code 15.2-1646, which states, “The relocation or expansion of a courthouse to land contiguous with its present location, including contiguous property directly across a public right-of-way, and within the same county or city is not such a removal as to require the authorization by the electorate.”

Johnson added that one of the criteria the county’s Courthouse Committee had used in evaluating prospective sites for a new courthouse had been to avoid locating in a 100-year or 500-year floodplain.

“No contiguous sites met this criteria,” the county administrator said, which is why the committee ultimately recommended the Camp Parkway location in 2017.

As previously reported, the Nov. 7, 2017, referendum question had asked, “Shall the courthouse be removed to 30100 Camp Parkway, Courtland, VA, and shall the Board of Supervisors be permitted to spend $26.5 million therefor?” When asked why the county’s voter education brochure had stated “no” to mean that “the existing Courthouse at 22350 Main St., Courtland will be enlarged and renovated” rather than the “contiguous” option, Johnson said that at the time the brochure was created and mailed, this being October 2017, there had been no discussion by either the Courthouse Committee or the Board of Supervisors regarding the construction of a new, free-standing building on a contiguous site.

“The first discussion of the ‘contiguous’ options arose from individual discussions between Moseley Architects and members of the Board of Supervisors, sheriff, commonwealth’s attorney and judges and court clerks as they sought to confirm the program and conceptual design,” Johnson said. “These meetings occurred over several days in January 2018. Concerns were raised at these meetings regarding the cost of the renovated/enlarged facility, particularly with the sunken costs associated with temporary facilities while the project was under construction. Moseley Architects was asked to develop potential options that were less expensive overall and avoided the need for temporary facilities.”

The Board of Supervisors, Johnson said, first entered into a contract with Moseley on Sept. 26, 2016, which specified that the firm was to (a) review and confirm the space needs evaluation that PMA Architecture had completed in February 2016; (b) assist the Courthouse Committee with its review and evaluation of potential sites for a new courthouse; (c) provide budget options for a renovated/enlarged facility, a new facility on a new site, and a renovation project that retained the 1960s addition; and (d) assist the county in developing a communications plan and public outreach program. The first time the Board of Supervisors discussed Moseley’s “contiguous” options, Johnson said, was in open session on May 29, 2018.

Rising costs

PMA’s report had estimated the county’s courthouse space needs to be 30,815 square feet based on the firm’s collaboration with Courtworks Inc. — which is the organization that publishes the Virginia Supreme Court’s courthouse guidelines — and suggested that the existing 23,000-square-foot courthouse could be renovated and expanded to 38,000 square feet for a cost of approximately $16.5 million. This report also estimated the cost of building a new 31,657-square-foot courthouse to be roughly $14 million, with another $2-3.5 million needed to repurpose the existing courthouse. Johnson presented this information to Franklin’s City Council on April 11, 2016, according to the recorded minutes for that meeting.

By the 2017 referendum, these cost estimates had increased to $26.5 million for building new and $26.3 million for renovating and expanding the existing courthouse. When asked about the $10-million-plus gap between PMA’s space needs estimate and Moseley’s estimate referendum, Johnson explained that the latter had been based on plans for a 44,000-square-foot courthouse rather than the 31,000- to 38,000-square-foot options PMA had presented.

“Moseley Architects’ estimates were more comprehensive and included costs associated with testing and inspections, data and telephone equipment, and moving expenses,” Johnson explained. “With regard to the renovation option, there is also a substantial variation in the respective architects’ estimates for temporary facilities.”

The recorded minutes for Courthouse Committee meetings — which Southampton County resident Joe Vick obtained via his own Freedom of Information Act request and provided to The Tidewater News on Tuesday — show that on Nov. 2, 2016, Moseley had estimated the cost of constructing a new, 44,000-square-foot courthouse to be between $22.8 million and $23.1 million. By the committee’s Feb. 15, 2017 meeting, Moseley’s estimate for the cost of building new on Camp Parkway had increased to $27.813 million, and the cost of renovating and expanding the existing courthouse was reported to be $22.346 million. Then, during an April 28, 2017, Board of Supervisors meeting, according to the recorded minutes, Moseley reported an increase of almost $4 million in its renovation estimate, with the new figure being around $25.9 million. The firm also reported that its estimate for building new had decreased by about $1.3 million, with the new figure being nearly $26.5 million.

Johnson confirmed that the cost estimates that were printed in the county’s voter education brochure, which stated that a renovation would cost $26.3 million and building new would cost $26.5 million, had also come from Moseley.

The three options that the Board “short-listed” last summer, all of which call for a new courthouse to be built on contiguous land, range in cost from $23 to $28 million.

Obligated to fund?

When Franklin’s City Council had discussed the courthouse in April of this year, Councilman Bobby Cutchins had questioned what legal requirement the city had to fund its portion of a multimillion dollar replacement courthouse.

At the time, nobody knew the crisis this city was in,” Cutchins said, referring to the numerous funding cuts and personnel reductions the city has now adopted for the city’s 2019-2020 budget.

P. Daniel Crumpler III, an attorney with a practice in Franklin, also questioned the city’s funding obligation during his presentation to the Council on May 13. The attorney said that Johnson, when explaining the county’s and city’s obligation to ensure that local court facilities remain in good condition, had often referenced state code 15.2-1634, section A, which states in layman’s terms that if a county’s or city’s court facilities are found to be insecure, out of repair or to pose a danger to the health and safety of court employees or the public, the Circuit Court judges can issue an order compelling the locality to make the necessary repairs and improvements. Crumpler informed the Council that there are four additional sections to this ordinance, the last being section E, which states, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize a circuit court to require that an additional or replacement courthouse be constructed.”

“The county courthouse needs some work, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that,” Crumpler said, speaking to The Tidewater News on May 14. “It needs to be updated technologically, it needs a new HVAC system. The mold and the dampness issue is not going to be settled until you put in that new system… If you don’t tear the [1960s addition] down, you have drastically reduced the cost of the project, and then, if you don’t bring the city of Franklin [lower courts] into it, you drastically reduce the size and expense again.”

Johnson, when asked about section E, confirmed that it was his understanding that the Circuit Court did not have the authority to order a replacement courthouse. When asked if this meant that the threat of a court order specified in section A only applied to repairing an existing courthouse rather than building new, Johnson initially replied, “Not entirely,” but on Tuesday, May 21, revised his answer to, “Yes.”

However, he added, “They do have the authority to require that the City and County meet their statutory obligations in providing a facility that is: 1) safe and secure; 2) in good repair; and 3) provides adequate space. Ultimately, it is up to the Court to determine whether or not these obligations are being met.”

Virginia Code 15.2-1643, Johnson said, states that before a mandamus (order) can be issued, a locality must appoint a five-member panel of experts to review the facilities in question and make recommendations to the locality and to the reviewing judge. This panel is not the same as the county’s Courthouse Committee, and is required to include three members who are either architects or professional engineers, each of whom represents a different firm. All costs associated with this panel — which would be tasked with comparing the current condition of the existing courthouse with the recognized standards for courthouses as detailed in the Virginia Supreme Court’s courthouse facility guidelines and making a report to the reviewing judge — would be borne by the city and county.

Johnson explained that he had based his earlier response concerning section E on language from the state’s 2009 Report of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to the Governor and The General Assembly of Virginia — better known as simply “JLARC” — but later realized that Section E wasn’t enacted until 2012.

“That eliminates the possibility altogether that a replacement courthouse can be ordered,” he said, but added that the city is still obligated to pay its share of whatever is built.

Editor’s note: a previously published version of this article had incorrectly listed April 15, 2017 as the date of the Courthouse Committee meeting at which Moseley’s estimate for the cost of building new on Camp Parkway had increased to $27.813 million.