A Courthouse Site Committee is Needed to Consider Other Locations for the New Courthouse

 The County Executive has proposed that the new courthouse be located on county-owned property on Bendix Road. The proposal combines the need for a new building, cost, public-private partnership, and location into one discussion. These are four separate issues and must be considered as such by the Council. Having reviewed the reports of consultants received pursuant to a public information act request and presentations to the Council, it is evident that the County has made no attempt to study where a courthouse should be located as perhaps the most important civic building in Howard County.

The “Draft Final Report, February 16, 2015 Capital Project C-0290” only analyzes two sites in additional to the current courthouse location: Martha Bush and Dorsey or Bendix Road. In regard to Dorsey the study states “The Dorsey Building site is a recent addition to the study and has not received the level of investigation of the other two sites.” The only other site considered was the Normandy Shopping Center site as the result of unsolicited proposal to the County. Thus, it is evident that the County failed to give any thought to where the courthouse could best be located to not only serve the legal needs of the County but could also be a catalyst for economic development or as a multi-use destination.

The Dorsey or Bendix location is a poor location for a courthouse. For a County that prides itself on multi-use developments and walkability, the Bendix site is sorely lacking in such vision. Other states have published guidelines regarding the construction of new courthouses. The Virginia Courthouse Facility Guidelines state:

“The effects of elements such as location, circulation, and security are hard to quantify. Yet the successful integration of these elements into the building will be apparent to, and appreciated by, all users of the facility, while failure to do so will quickly be apparent.”
 The State of Michigan has recognized that the architecture of the courthouse should recognize that the building is both a “temple of justice” and a “legal emporium.”

The Bendix site was picked because it is owned by the County, not because it is a good location. It is not in Ellioctt City. It is not near other government buildings. It is not near the Detention Center.

While the County Executive is concerned with cost, the proposal fails to consider the costs in transportation and security in moving the prisoners to and from the courthouse. No consideration was made to building a courthouse closer to the Detention Center. This is first factor discussed in the Virginia Courthouse Facility Guidelines:

“It is desirable that it be in proximity to the main business district and any cluster of professional offices, particularly attorneys, and near other government offices with which the court intersects. While it is not essential that the courts be located near the jail, it is often desirable. Those courts that have direct access from the jail to the court experience fewer problems and reduced expense for transportation of prisoners.”

Besides cost, the Virginia Guidelines list the other criteria that usually need to be considered:

  •  Ease of public access
  • Availability of public transportation and parking
  • Proximity to other government buildings and programs
  • Relationship to other services such as restaurants, office supplies, libraries, copy centers and attorney offices
  • Relationship to civic center
  • Impact on surrounding residential neighborhoods
  • Prominence of site
  • Expansion potential
  • Site amenities
  • Physical constraints of the site
  • Site use restrictions

In 2016, in considering 27 sites in 7 municipalities, the York County, Maine Courthouse Site Selection Commission had similar selection criteria including:

  • Accessibility to major roads
  • Proximity to geographic center of County
  • Proximity to population center of the County
  • Clear access to courthouse from public roads and parking
  • Impression of site for courthouse
  • Security risks (The site should be open and free of places for intruders to hide.)

The P3 proposal has failed to consider the benefits of locating the courthouse close to the jail. Sites that should be considered include the undeveloped parcel along Route 175 in Columbia Gateway. Development in Gateway would have the available office space for attorneys and other court support companies and would yield synergies with the County Executive’s recently announced plans for Gateway redevelopment.

Placing the courthouse along Route 1 could be a catalyst for redevelopment of that area. The P3 partners could choose to build additional office buildings. TIF financing might also be appropriate. Building it on the State owned parcels next to the Detention Center would minimize costs of prisoner transport.

The proposal to swap the Bendix site for the HCPPS land bank site on Marriottsville Road is discussed here.

The Michigan Planning and Design Guide state that a courthouse should reflect the separate and constitutionally independent status of the judiciary as a separate and equal branch of government. Furthermore, “the temptation to cheapen the significance of the courthouse by treating the courts as just another “county department” needs to be avoided.” The Michigan Courthouse, A Planning and Design Guide for Trial Court Facilities, page 2-9. It is unclear if the price in the P3 resolution accounts for these designs.

As Robert A. Peck Commissioner of Public Building Service, GSA testified to Congress on the design excellence program for federal courthouses that the designs have “lasting quality and dignity” and that “court facilities that we are building are appropriate to the seriousness of judicial proceedings that take place therein.”  Quoting Justice Steven Breyer, Peck said “‘Both in function and design, these buildings will embody and will reflect principles that tell the public who uses, or sees, them something about themselves, their government, and their nation.'”

These principles were also recently reached by members of the Moore County, North Carolina Courthouse Facilities Advisory Committee. They commented that it was important “how the building will look” and “that people should still know that is a courthouse.” (“Courthouse Committee Begins Work,” thepilot.com, David Sinclair, Managing Editor, Jan. 31, 2017). Similarly, a judge on the York County Site Selection Commission also stated that “a courthouse needs to highly accessible and visible to the community.” Judge Moskowitz, York County Courthouse Site Selection Commission, Meeting Minutes for Nov. 4, 2016.

For a County that prides itself on public input and temporary advisory committees from the Ellicott City recovery to the HCPSS Budget Review, the lack of discussion about the location for the new courthouse is profoundly disappointing. The Spending Affordability Committee stated at the Council’s February monthly meeting that they did not consider location and that this was not their charge. In fact, the chair admitted that he is unaware of who selected the sites consider by the Committee and P3 consultant. In fact, it appears that there was actually little thought of alternative sites by Public Works.

The Virginia Guidelines state:

“Public hearings on site selection, with publication of advance notice of the hearings, is advisable in order to obtain the views of various interest groups and to obviate subsequent opposition on the ground that conflicting interests were not taken into consideration in the site selection process” (page 6-2).

In addition the guidelines state that:

“deliberations should involve considerations for the public, business and professional communities and other government activities. Careful study of the past and projected growth of the locality and its demographics could prove useful in designating the best available site” (page 6-2).

Howard County has failed to follow the Virginia’s suggestions and involve the community in the site selection process. Other communities including Moore County, North Carolina and York County, Maine have recognized the need and established courthouse site committees. Therefore, I urge the County Council to establish a courthouse site review committee to consider the costs and benefits of other appropriate sites for the new courthouse throughout the County.