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A long-awaited resolution to a surprisingly contentious issue…

November 18, 2022, 10:00 AM

Sometimes, when it comes to elections, the ones that we lock onto most are little local issues.  For me, it was the courthouse issue in Augusta County, Virginia.  For those not familiar, Augusta County is the area where I grew up, and the courthouse is located in Staunton.  That means, due to all cities’ being independent from counties in Virginia, the Augusta County courthouse is technically located outside of the county (though that is not unique to Augusta County by any means).  As I understand it, for quite some time, Augusta County has been short on space for its courts, and has been looking to replace its courthouse with something bigger and more modern.  Then to add another wrinkle to this, the rest of the Augusta County government had moved out to nearby Verona, located just north of Staunton, long ago.  When we moved to the area in 1992, the Augusta County Government Center was a relatively new building in Verona, and since then, a regional jail has been built in Verona, the sheriff’s office moved to Verona, and the school system headquarters moved to Verona (though the schools moved from elsewhere in the county, not from Staunton).  The only thing left in Staunton was the courts.  The kicker there was that the location of the courthouse determined what town was the county seat, and moving the county seat required a referendum to be placed before the voters.  And as you know, voters can be an odd bunch.  Sometimes they perform the way you want or expect them to, but sometimes they don’t.  And generally speaking, some things will never pass by referendum.  If you’re raising taxes, for example, it will fail when taken to the voters, because in all fairness, who is going to vote to raise their own taxes?

The problem with the courthouse in Augusta County has been longstanding.  The Augusta County courthouse had fallen below state standards for court facilities some time ago, and because of that, the county had been given a “show cause” order to improve the courts.  County leaders also stated that they were unable to renovate their existing court facilities to meet current state standards.  Thus it was necessary to build a new courthouse.

This issue was initially brought to the voters as a ballot question in 2016.  At that time, the question to the voters was phrased as follows:

Shall the Courthouse of Augusta County be removed to the Augusta County Government Center Complex in Verona, Virginia, and shall the Board of Supervisors be permitted to spend $45,000,000.00 therefore?

With this question, presented as a matter of yes or no, a two-thirds majority voted it down.  The problem with this question was that it led voters to think that doing nothing was an option, when it wasn’t.  The courthouse would have to change one way or another in order to meet state standards, and this question did a really poor job explaining it.  It essentially asked voters to approve a large expenditure of tax dollars, akin to raising one’s own taxes.  So it was no surprise that the measure failed.

I considered the issue of moving the courts to be a no-brainer.  Of course you do it.  By building in Verona, you were building new on open land, and could build exactly what you wanted without regard to an existing structure that might be full of surprises that you won’t know about until you start tearing into it.  Additionally, a new building in the county would have space for expansion and include provisions for future expansion in the new building, while any structure in Staunton would likely be landlocked from the outset.  Then there’s also the proximity to other county facilities, with the rest of the county government’s being located in Verona.  Having the Augusta County Government Center right there, along with the sheriff and the jail, meant that it just made sense to put the courts right there next to them.

I had followed the issue somewhat, and talked with both parents about it.  My parents were actually a good microcosm for the contentiousness of the issue.  Mom agreed with me, that it was pretty much a no-brainer to move the courts to Verona.  Dad, meanwhile, saw no reason to move the courthouse to Verona, and intended to vote no on the issue.

With the issue voted down, it seemed as though the courthouse would remain in Staunton, and the county would have to figure out how to make it work.  I saw various plans floated around that included consolidation of the county courts with the city of Staunton’s courts, spreading the county courts across multiple buildings and connecting them with skywalks, and also expanding the existing courthouse on two sides, which would essentially build a new building around the existing courthouse.  Take a look:

These are renderings of what was called the Frasier proposal, which used the site of a former bank building to provide additional court space and then linked the two buildings with a skywalk.

These are renderings of what was called the Frasier proposal, which used the site of a former bank building to provide additional court space and then linked the two buildings with a skywalk.

These are renderings of what was called the Frasier proposal, which used the site of a former bank building to provide additional court space and then linked the two buildings with a skywalk.
These are renderings of what was called the Frasier proposal, which used the site of a former bank building to provide additional court space and then linked the two buildings with a skywalk.

This is a rendering of the expansion proposal, which would have built a new building around the existing courthouse.
This is a rendering of the expansion proposal, which would have built a new building around the existing courthouse.  This would have required the demolition of a number of buildings along Augusta Street and New Street, as well as the elimination of Barristers Row, a narrow street that runs behind the existing courthouse.

I found these proposals to be non-starters, because it felt like they were trying too hard to make it work and not necessarily doing something sustainable for the long term.  The multi-building plan appeared too much like a jigsaw puzzle, cobbling multiple buildings together to make some semblance of a whole, while the expansion of the original courthouse building would destroy the building’s architectural balance, as well as require the removal of a number of buildings in downtown Staunton.  My issue was that while those proposals might have addressed the current need, but if the operation needed to grow in the future, they would be back at square one, since they would still be landlocked in Staunton’s downtown area, which is fully built up.

Understandably, the residents of Staunton were not pleased with these proposals.  Elyse and I tend to stay in downtown Staunton when we visit, and we noticed the opposition quite well on our visits, with signage pleading to save Barristers Row, which is a small street behind the courthouse that would be completely destroyed if the courthouse were to be expanded in Staunton as proposed.  Nothing came out of any of these proposed expansions of the courthouse in Staunton, and just as well – nobody really liked them.  The plan to build around the existing courthouse on two sides was denied by the city of Staunton (such is what happens when your county courthouse is outside of the county), so that put the brakes on that.

All of this led to a resurrection of the proposal to move the courts to Verona, and bringing it in front of the voters once again.  They also were determined to settle this once and for all this time, i.e. the county was vacating their existing courthouse one way or another, and they were going to either relocate to a new building in Verona, or relocate to a new building in Staunton.

The Verona plan, a rendering of which is shown here was pretty much what it always has been, to build a new three-story courthouse on open land.
The Verona plan, a rendering of which is shown here was pretty much what it always has been, to build a new three-story courthouse on open land.  Then when it was finished, the courts would just move directly into their new facilities in Verona.  The cost would be around $80 million.  I liked this design because it looks the way that a courthouse ought to look, even if it’s not necessarily awe-inspiring.

The Staunton plan, a rendering of which is shown here, was a bit more complicated.  The Staunton plan would have involved demolishing the current district courts building, located across the street from the main courthouse, and constructing a new five-story courthouse on the site.
The Staunton plan, a rendering of which is shown here, was a bit more complicated.  The Staunton plan would have involved demolishing the current district courts building, located across the street from the main courthouse, and constructing a new five-story courthouse on the site.  That would have required putting some of the court facilities in temporary swing space for the duration of the project, since this new courthouse would have replaced an existing building.  Thus some people would have had to move twice, i.e. into swing space and then back out of swing space.  That option would have cost $103 million.  I hated this building design, because it looked like some generic government building, and not like a courthouse.  I thought that it looked just as ugly as the building that currently stands on that site, just taller and with a more modern facade.

Just from a cost standpoint, it would have been more expensive to keep the county courts in Staunton, because of the need to acquire swing space and demolish the old building along with constructing the new building.  Plus a Staunton-based courthouse would be landlocked immediately, because there would be existing buildings all around it that aren’t going anywhere.  So if the voters had chosen this option, the county would probably be in the same situation again a few decades down the road should the courts eventually outgrow the new building.  Based on the way that Augusta County has planned schools in the past, where they’re overcrowded on their first year after opening, I wouldn’t be surprised if the county outgrew the new building more quickly than anticipated and would need to figure out a new solution.  Building in Verona, they would have room to grow if need be, and be able to bake expansion plans right into the building’s design.

As such, the 2022 referendum read like this:

Under Virginia law, Augusta County must provide an adequate court facility for the Augusta County Courts.  To accomplish that purpose:

Shall the county courthouse be relocated to Augusta County at a cost of $80,026,447?

Shall the county courthouse remain in the City of Staunton at a cost of $103,855,525?

Note that this was not posed as a matter of yes or no.  The options this time were either to spend $80 million to move the courthouse to Verona, or to spend $103 million to keep the courts in Staunton.  In other words, do you want to spend an extra $23 million to keep the courthouse in Staunton just because, or do you want to spend $23 million on other things down the road?  In other words, if the voters really wanted to keep the courts in Staunton, they would accommodate that, but it would come at a large cost to the taxpayers.

Unsurprisingly, when phrased that way, the result was 86% in favor of moving the courts to Verona.  The sense that I got was that it was never about the location of the courts as much it was about fiscal responsibility.  When you phrase it where it sounds like taking no action is an option, and therefore it’s possible to not spend any money at all, let alone spend $45 million, then it’s not surprising that the voters chose to vote the proposal down.  But when you phrase it as a matter of spending $80 million on a courthouse vs. spending $103 million on a courthouse, and that taking no action was not an option, the voters unsurprisingly voted for the amount that cost less.  I’m just happy that the voters of the county finally did the right thing, even if it took two votes because of bad phrasing the first time around – a mistake that caused a delay that cost taxpayers an extra $35 million due to rising costs.

But in any event, the issue is definitively settled.  This is no longer an issue of contention.  It’s over, and now the whole plan just needs to be executed, and we’ll see a new courthouse take form in Verona.  I also wonder how Staunton will reuse the old county court buildings.  Time will tell, I suppose…