Proposed Law Puts Future of Albemarle County Courthouses Up to Voters

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A proposed bill could clear up the debate about whether or not Albemarle County voters should have a say in moving the courts out of Charlottesville.

58th District Delegate Rob Bell’s Virginia House Bill 1546 would require the county to issue a voter referendum before the Board of Supervisors can make a decision about whether or not to move Albemarle Circuit and General District courts.

Until last year, voter referendums were required before a county could move its court system. But a bill that took effect this past July eliminated that referendum requirement, specifically for county courthouses located in a city or being moved to city property.

Del. Bell says voters should have a say, not only because moving the courts will cost millions of dollars, but also because location changes often make it difficult for people to get to court.

"This has been the law for many years, and the courthouse is in many ways, the single biggest symbol of government. For over a century, the rule was you had to get the voter's approval before you moved it,” said the Republican legislator.

Albemarle County Attorney Greg Hampton argues the Board of Supervisors should be able to make the decision without a vote because Albemarle Circuit Court is not within city limits.

However, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association disagrees with Hampton.

At issue is whether the courthouses are on city or county property, despite being land-locked in downtown Charlottesville.

County supervisors are set to resume the discussion of the potential court relocation in March. They had already asked consulting firm Stantec to explore the concept of moving the courts into the Albemarle County Office Building along McIntire Road.

December, Stantec presented a report to supervisors on building new courthouses in the Rio Road area. That report concluded the move could lead to economic development, but would cost significantly more than renovating the court buildings downtown.

Bell says HB1546 still has a long way to go: It is scheduled to be heard by a Virginia House of Delegates subcommittee on Thursday, February 1.

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