Albemarle to decide on fate of downtown courts

A historical building.
Albemarle County Courthouse

Since 1762, the Albemarle County Courthouse has been located at its present location in downtown Charlottesville, where both Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe practiced law. However, there is a real and growing concern that the Albemarle Board of Supervisors will attempt a vote to move the county courts away from Court Square Away and in doing so, seek to avoid a county-wide referendum. They could vote as early as December 2017.

Call to Action for Albemarle County Residents:

Attend the December 18 public hearing and urge the Albemarle Board of Supervisors to keep the courts downtown and to work with the city for a shared future. If you can’t make it to the hearing, call or send a letter. Contact info >>

Albemarle Board of Supervisors Public Hearing on Government Operations / Courts Relocation Opportunities Analysis
Monday, December 18, 2017, at 6:00 p.m.
Lane Auditorium, Albemarle County Office Building, 41 McIntire Road

Call to Action for City of Charlottesville Residents:

Contact the City Council ( and urge them to be proactive and vocal in offering to work with the county and cooperating to address the county’s concerns about, among other things, parking, future space needs, and facility access.

Background on the Courthouse & the New Push to Move

A statute in a square.
View from the Albemarle County Courthouse. Photo by Bob Mical.

As noted above, since 1762, the Albemarle County Courthouse has been located at its present location in downtown Charlottesville, where both Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe practiced law. Initially a small wood-frame building served as the courthouse, replaced in 1803 by the present brick structure, which would be expanded over the years.

Today, that original building anchors a city-county judicial precinct that encompasses multiple buildings, including the Charlottesville Courthouse and the shared Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courthouse. The shared courts and services (such as interpreters), the proximity of the city and county courts, and their proximity to multiple legal aid services and attorney offices allows for a judicial system that efficiently serves the residents of both the city and the county.

After years of evaluating the necessary expansion and upgrades to these existing county facilities, in 2016, Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors suspended discussions with the city until the county hired a new consultant and completed an evaluation of either keeping the county courts in town or relocating them to the county, presumably to a site near Route 29 and Rio Road. This decision and subsequent discussions appears to be driven mostly by a board majority who believe a new county courts facility would serve as the anchor tenant for a new or redeveloped mixed-use retail center.

While no final decision was expected this year, there are growing concerns that a board majority might seek a vote this December. Complicating the matter is the county’s position that a provision of the state code requiring a referendum to approve a relocation does not apply. Given the legal community’s strong opposition to the move, a board decision to move the courts without a referendum vote would very likely face a legal challenge. 

In November, the county consultant presented detailed evaluations of space needs and cost estimates. The consultant noted it would be less expensive to keep the courts in town and meet projected space needs (cost estimates below). Curiously, the county could today move forward with the less-costly work necessary to stay downtown. That work would face few significant hurdles and could proceed almost immediately, and, understandably, require resolution with the city over parking and other concerns). Or, it can opt for the move, and accept with it all the delays, additional costs, community and legal challenges, inefficiencies in the judicial system, etc., and a further—and unnecessary—widening of the gap in city-county relations.

Note: While the county has also evaluated a plan to consolidate its administrative offices, the discussion appears to almost singularly focused on the courts. The administrative operations of the city and county are very separate and generally independent–versus the combined and shared court facilities. As such, and given the apparent back-burner nature of that review, our focus is here on the county courts.

Our Concerns About Moving the Courts Include:

Lack of community support for a move.

The county’s consultant conducted a survey and help numerous roundtables and meetings with court-users and other stakeholders. They concluded there was an overwhelming lack of support to relocate the courts and that a clear majority supported keeping the courts in their present location.

See: National Center For State Courts, Albemarle County, Virginia Courts Location Operations Impact Review Executive Summary, Draft Report, October 31, 2017, page ES-11.

“Both the stakeholder survey respondents and court-user survey respondents were in favor of maintaining court services at the current centralized court campus. 83.3% of the stakeholders and court-users were not supportive of [relocating the courts.]” It is worth noting that at its November 16, 2017 meeting, the Board of Supervisors argued against using percentages and was critical that approximately 70 city residents had responded to and been included in the survey. However, if we assume all of the city residents opposed the move and eliminate them from the total, the mathematical result is that roughly 80% of the surveyed county residents “were not supportive” of the move. Additionally, while the consultant conceded that the survey was not random and therefore not statistically valid–in fact, the board instructed the consultant to remove from their final report the use of percentages–our own discussions with county residents indicates there is a high level of opposition to relocating the courts. Despite this, some in the board majority claimed there is strong support for the move. We suspect they know otherwise and thus the effort to avoid a county-wide referendum that would likely fail to support the move.

Good reasons to stay at Court Square.

According to the consultant’s November update to the board, renovating the existing space and building new where needed will meet projected needs and cost less than relocating and building an entirely new facility. ($36.3-$38.5 million to remain at Court Square; $46.9-$51.5 million to relocate to 29 North.) Also part of relocating would be the additional operating costs necessary to fully-staff those court staff and services that been shared by the city and county.

* Cost estimates from: DRAFT Stantec Program Analysis Report – Courts Options, November 1, 2017

The county has not proven a fiscal benefit to moving.

If the county’s intent is to spur economic development and generate tax revenue, they have yet to explain or demonstrate how removing from the tax rolls valuable land and future, taxable building space will be a boon for the community coffers. This is a particularly important thing to do when the estimates indicate it would cost at least $8-million more to move the courts then it would to stay at Court Square.

County and city should maintain a shared vision and goals.

This relationship must be mutual and symbiotic; anchored in a shared identity and a commitment to a shared future. Moving the county courts out of the city will splinter the relationship and pit the two localities as adversaries in the competition for economic development and economic activity. The county’s judicial services are not an economic development pawn to be exploited as a hoped-for catalyst to save a floundering retail center. A healthy and prosperous Charlottesville is critical to a healthy and prosperous Albemarle County.

The entire community must have a voice.

The Board of Supervisors must allow a referendum vote. As we learned from the 29 Bypass fight, this community is not fond of surprise votes that ignore the consensus view.

Legal challenge will cost county taxpayers.

The legal community is all but unanimously opposed to moving the courts, arguing it will create inefficiency and confusion. That challenge could result in the courts requiring a referendum vote—in which, we believe, County residents will reject the move, bringing into question why the BoS so adamantly pursued this move and spent so much money evaluating what they knew residents did not support. If the legal challenge is defeated, what will be the costs of those delays—both in time and legal fees? Again, the consultants concluded that staying downtown would cost less and meet projected space needs.

Increased traffic and the disruption of legal services.

Currently shared services, such as court interpreters and even presiding judges, will have to be replicated and paid for. Splitting the city and County courts will impact community accessibility to not only attorneys, but to legal aid and advocacy services that may lack the resources and personnel to provide adequate services in two locations. Instead of a short walk from the city courthouse to the county courthouse, lawyers, mediators, judicial advocates will need their cars and, hopefully, favorable traffic to meet obligations in both courts. For the community, there is already, at times, confusion over which court to go to; separating the courts by miles could be devastating for those who errantly go to the wrong building.

From November 2016 letter to the county from members of the legal community, including the city and county court clerks and both the county and county sheriffs: “The co-location of the Albemarle and Charlottesville General District Courts, Circuit Courts, Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts, Commonwealth’s Attorneys, Sheriff’s, Clerk’s, Public Defender’s, Legal Aid and local law offices in and around Court Square clearly serves the interest of justice. […] It promotes logistical, administrative and judicial efficiency while providing a measure of clarity to the public about where citizens should report for court[.]”

It has been suggested that public transit could solve this problem, however, there have been no discussions about what it would cost to implement. In fact, and while a transit solution would seem critical to addressing some of the concerns expressed by the stakeholders and court-users, at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, some on the board who support the move as a means to address court accessibility then questioned whether or not the cost of a transit solution was germane to the evaluation.

Adding to the irony, at that same meeting a consultant explained that concerns about traffic, transit and parking would likely be mitigated due to increased use of the internet to pay fines and share information–reducing the need for people to physically go to courthouse–and the declining percentage of cases that go to trial. This explanation alone should raise serious questions about claiming a court relocation is needed to meet a need for increased space and more parking, as well as that it will produce the additional activity necessary for a new or revitalized shopping center.

Public Private Partnerships are risky, at best.

Why leave county-owned land and facilities for that leased space and buildings owned by a private entity whose goal is revenue, not serving the community’s judicial obligations and responsibilities? To accommodate a relocation and limit the cost, the county is evaluating a public private partnership where the owner/developer would construct the buildings and then lease to the county that space and the required parking. In exchange for a long-term lease of private property, the county’s use of the buildings would benefit the landowner by, it is argued, serving as the catalyst for further development.

Given the county’s backlog of approved but unbuilt commercial and non-residential space, the existing commercial strips looking to redevelop, and the market trend away from bricks-and-mortar retail, it is questionable how long it would take for the new county facilities to produce the promised results of new customers and a demand for new retail and office space. And if that boon fails to materialize fast enough, or not at all, will the county’s lease adequately protect the interests of future county taxpayers?


While a court relocation does not mean the building itself will be lost, it would bring to an end over two centuries of continued use as the county’s judicial center. The inescapable presence of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and others will no longer inspire judges, attorneys, court staff, and local residents. In its early history, Jefferson not only practiced law here, but attended periodic worship services when the north wing was used on a rotational basis by local congregations. Preserving context is a critical element in historic preservation.

The City of Charlottesville also needs to be at the table.

By deciding last year to suspend coordination with the city, left out of these discussions has been the city’s offer—even offers—to work with the county on expanding parking, among other concessions. It is without question within the city’s interest to keep the county courts at Court Square, thus it is incumbent on city officials to take very seriously this possible move. It is difficult to seek compromise when the county refuses to even discuss the matter. Yet, for example and according to the county, when county police officers appearing court recently lost parking near the courthouse—presumably a city decision—or the lack nearby of convenient and dedicated parking for handicapped and aged users of the court, it is not difficult to see the merit in some of the county’s complaints and anger.

These are all issues that can be addressed and resolved. We encourage the city to speak openly about what it might offer. Ultimately, this will be a matter for the public to argue for or against; the city could help the former by putting on the table now what it is willing to offer and what it is willing to concede.

Important and symbiotic relationships require communication, compromise and openness. Particularly, and especially, in light of everything this one community has experienced this year. It would be both unthinkable and inexcusable were its leaders unable to sit down together, acknowledge this shared future, and then roll up their sleeves and move forward with the heavy lifting now needed to end the city-county bickering and move forward as one community