Leesburg council members oppose moving courts

October 8, 2012

Leesburg Town Council members recently spoke out against the possible relocation of court facilities from downtown Leesburg to county-owned land off Sycolin Road, outside the town limits.

Relocation of the Circuit, General District and Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts from the historic downtown area is one option under consideration by the Loudoun County government for the next phase of the courts’ expansion. But members of the Town Council have raised objections about being forced to choose between closing Church Street to accommodate a downtown expansion of the courts and moving all the courts outside Leesburg.

The council is scheduled to discuss the issue — and possibly make a formal recommendation on the proposal — at its meeting Tuesday.

“The idea that the county would spend over $100 million to build a whole new courts complex out on Sycolin Road and add more traffic down in that area, where we’ve got people already concerned about traffic — that would be hard to justify to the taxpayers of the county, as well as the town,” Mayor Kristen C.
Umstattd said at the Town Council’s Sept. 24 meeting.

Council member Thomas S. Dunn also questioned the move: “You’ve got a very good court expansion that you’ve just had in the last few years, and now you need another one, and I’m wondering, ‘When is this going to stop?’ ”

The county began the decades-long process of expanding the courts facilities in downtown Leesburg in 1997 to address increased caseloads and space needs resulting from rapid population growth. The first phase of the project included the construction of a court building and renovation of the former county administration building. In the second phase, from 2002 to 2004, two older court buildings on Market Street were renovated to serve as the main entrance to the courts complex. The first two phases of the project cost about $32 million.

The third phase of the project originally called for construction of a 60,000-square-foot building at Church and Market streets, the former jail site. But county officials now say that a facility twice that size would be needed to meet revised 20-year projections for court caseloads and space requirements.

The possibility of relocating court facilities surfaced at a June meeting of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors’ Finance, Government Services and Operations Committee, during which county staff members recommended moving the General District and Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts but leaving the Circuit Court downtown. The staff cited concerns about how further expansion of the courts in downtown Leesburg would affect court security, parking and traffic.

The staff report estimated that 120,000 square feet of new courtroom and office space, including seven new courtrooms, would be needed to meet the county’s needs by 2025, based on population and caseload projections. The report estimated that moving the two courts would increase the cost of the third phase of expansion from $55 million to about $70 million.

The committee is also considering three options that would keep all the courts downtown, and one option that would move only the General District Court. Committee Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) asked that the relocation of all three courts, which would further increase the cost of the project, also be considered. Virginia courthouse facility guidelines recommend that all three courts be in the same facility or on the same campus whenever possible.

The committee has invited stakeholders — including the town government, judges, law enforcement officials, the bar association and the clerk of the Circuit Court — to weigh in at its Oct. 22 meeting.

Construction of the larger facility downtown could require tearing down several county-owned houses on Edwards Ferry Road, building structured parking on the county’s Pennington parking lot and possibly closing Church Street for security and traffic flow reasons.

“It’s our job to prepare for the safest environment possible,” said Paul Brown, construction and waste management division manager. “Given the order of magnitude of 120,000 square feet of future courtroom and office space, we don’t think it is in the interest of public safety to have Church Street, mixing vehicular and pedestrian traffic, going through the middle of it.”

Umstattd and other council members spoke out against the closing of Church Street, but Vice Mayor Kevin D. Wright did not rule out the possibility.

“We never said no to [closing] Church Street,” Wright said. “We said, ‘Explain it to us. . . . Tell me why it’s a problem and then let’s talk about how to solve it.’ ”

Council members referred to unspecified security concerns about having Church Street run between two court buildings. Federal antiterrorism standards say that traffic flow and street parking should not be allowed close to public buildings.

“I don’t buy into the stated security concern about Church Street presenting a danger,” Umstattd said Sept. 24. “To me, that argument falls flat immediately.”

Dunn also asked that the courts consider extending their hours of operation.

“Why not go with expanded hours?” he said. “Using night court, use the facility that you currently have and just use them more times during the day.”

Wright suggested that it did not make sense to move the courts so soon after expanding and renovating the existing court facilities.

“There’s a lost investment if they up and pull everything out of there,” Wright said. “They have a plan. Just because there may need to be some revisions to that plan doesn’t mean you go, ‘Aw, forget about it. We’re going to abandon the entire courts complex and build a whole new one.’ As a taxpayer, that sounds a lot more expensive to me.”

The Leesburg Town Council is expected to formalize its recommendation at its meeting Tuesday. Public comment will be allowed at the beginning of meeting, which will start at 7:30 p.m.

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