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Judge’s order asks why Augusta Co. courts haven’t been made safe and secure

Published: Sep. 15, 2021 at 9:53 AM EDT
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STAUNTON, Va. (WVIR) - The historic Augusta County Courthouse in downtown Staunton still needs work to make it safe and secure. Now, a judge has filed an order to know why that work hasn’t happened.

Five years ago, the people of Augusta County overwhelmingly voted to keep their courts in downtown Staunton. Since then the Augusta County Board of Supervisors have pursued different ways to make that work, but still little has happened.

Supervisors feel they have exhausted all viable options available to the county for locating court services in Staunton. They didn’t want to be interviewed, but that’s what the board says in a press release from Augusta County. It’s a response to Circuit Court Judge Chap Goodwin’s order to show cause why the county shouldn’t be forced to make both the Circuit Court and General District Court facilities safe and secure.

The county owns both buildings, but Staunton leases part of the General District building for its Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, so they too have an order to show cause.

“This 1990 agreement includes the city of Staunton to assist with any renovations with the J and D courts,” Staunton Mayor Andrea Oakes said.

So far, the county’s plans to fix this issue have not worked out.

Roughly $1.2 million is invested in a plan to tear down the existing District Court building to be replaced by a new structure for all courts was scrapped because it was in a floodplain.

Another plan called for demolishing nine historic properties to build a five-story 95,000 square-foot building to wrap around the 1901 courthouse wasn’t embraced by Staunton.

Most recently, the county hoped to buy the Atlantic Union Bank building on the other side of Augusta Street. A release says the bank set the purchase price at $8.19 million, while the alleged assessed value is $1.9 million, and negotiations to lower the price failed.

While the county did not express hope, Oakes believes there’s a solution.

“We want there to be a win-win for Augusta County and the city of Staunton, and it’s out there. We will find it,” she said.

The next steps include a future court date once a judge has been appointed to the case.

Statement from the Augusta County Board of Supervisors Updating Status of Courthouse Project

On September 14, 2021, the Circuit Court Chief Judge entered an order against the Augusta County Board of Supervisors pursuant to Virginia Code § 15.2-1643 which begins the judicial process to address the needs for a secure and safe courts facility.

Post Date: 09/14/2021 10:00 AM

Augusta County was presented with an opportunity to purchase property adjacent to the 1901 circuit courthouse in summer 2020. This opportunity would have given the county the ability to adequately provide a court system that met the space, safety and security requirements needed. This court house expansion would have housed a combined city-county juvenile and domestic relations court, general district court, and circuit court in addition to court-related services.

Representatives from Augusta County met with representatives from Staunton to discuss the potential property acquisitions and the county’s courthouse needs and limitations dictated by State Code. The County made clear to representatives of Staunton our constraints which included a failed referendum, a process that cannot be held again until 2026, expansion limited to only the existing parcels adjacent to or across the street from the county seat (1901 circuit courthouse), and concerns about Lewis Creek and its floodplain. Upon presenting the circuit courthouse expansion project to multiple city council members, they indicated general support for the project, which included demolition of smaller structures to provide way for a newly renovated circuit courthouse and expansion for three court systems.

In that light, in October 2020, Augusta County applied for a certificate of appropriateness with the Staunton City Historic Preservation Commission. This application included descriptions, drawings, photographs, plans and documentation as required. Meetings were held with Staunton’s staff and the liaison to the commission, also the director of the Historic Staunton Foundation who actively and publicly campaigned against this project. In addition, there was public outcry over demolition of the buildings within the purchase options and against the size of the proposed building. As a result, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission denied the County’s proposal. The Augusta County Board of Supervisors filed an appeal to Staunton’s City Council to approve the certificate of appropriateness. The appeal was deferred for two months at the request of Staunton’s City Council, and ultimately, City Council requested that the County withdraw the appeal. In the spirit of cooperation and collaboration, the County withdrew the appeal on January 8, 2021.

Since the filing of the certificate of appropriateness appeal, Augusta County has diligently worked towards resolution of providing a building that is adequate, safe, and secure. Augusta has had ongoing contact with representatives of Atlantic Union Bank to explore opportunities for purchase of their downtown building. Atlantic Union Bank set a purchase price of $8.19 million. The Augusta County Board of Supervisors has concerns about the high cost of the bank property, the time the bank needed to relocate, and potential flood plain issues. After attempts at negotiations to lower the price, Atlantic Union Bank has not been willing to modify their asking price, despite an assessed value of $1.9 million.

The purchase of the Atlantic Union Bank building is considered the last avenue to pursue. Again, there are legal limitations dictating the location of the new courts’ facility, that meet Staunton’s requirements as well as the public’s desires. Additionally, there are significant limitations on the demolition of buildings and the size as well as aesthetic view of the building due to Staunton’s historical preservation requirements.

The Augusta County Board of Supervisors has discussed the current issues and constraints with constructing a suitable, secure, and safe courts facility. After considering the limited options available and, in light of not obtaining a resolution acceptable to the county, the city, and its citizens, the Board of Supervisors feels it has exhausted all viable options available to the county for locating the court facilities in the City of Staunton.

Augusta County has been informed that the Circuit Court Chief Judge has entered an order against the Augusta County Board of Supervisors pursuant to Virginia Code § 15.2-1643 which begins the judicial process to address the needs for a secure and safe courts facility.

City of Staunton Statement Concerning Court Facilities

Sept. 14, 2021 – Yesterday, under a procedure established by state law to ensure the security and good repair of court facilities, the Circuit Courts for the City of Staunton and Augusta County began a judicial process concerning the improvement of the condition of Augusta County’s court facilities in the City of Staunton. Orders entered by the courts as a part of the judicial process address the condition of two buildings owned by the county, including its circuit court building at 1 East Johnson Street and its district courts building at 6 East Johnson Street.

Although the two buildings are owned by the county, the city leases a portion of the district courts building for the operation of its juvenile and domestic relations district court. The maintenance of the building is the responsibility of the county under an agreement between the county and the city.

The judicial process follows the county’s unsuccessful efforts to acquire property owned by Atlantic Union Bank and located across South Augusta Street from the county’s historic courthouse, on which it hoped to construct a new court facility to serve its needs for years to come.

The city cooperated fully with the county in its efforts to acquire and redevelop the bank property and is disappointed that those efforts have not met with success.

City officials will evaluate the orders entered by the courts to determine an appropriate response on the part of the city.

The city maintains its strong commitment to the preservation of the historic architecture of its downtown while simultaneously working with the county to meet its needs.

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