Exchanging ideas could have worked

Published 8:41 pm Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Dear Editor:

“The Virginia Courthouse Facility Guidelines” (Second Edition) outline a process that local governments can follow. The guidelines suggest convening a local planning committee that gets to work and identifies major issues before the architects or engineers are hired.

This initial committee would include judges, clerks, the commonwealth’s attorney, the sheriff, local attorneys and members of the public as well as local government staff. A smaller working group remains active after professionals are hired and throughout the design process.   

Public meetings at the start can identify the needs, goals and concerns of different stakeholders. In contrast, our supervisors “put the cart before the horse” when they bypassed the opportunity to inform and engage the public as planning for new court facilities got underway. 

Our supervisors appointed a committee that included two supervisors, the county administrator and two county employees. This committee, joined by circuit court judges and the director of the Department of historic resources, reviewed submissions to the county’s request for proposals and recommended an architect.   

For two-and-a-half years, this committee met in closed session with architects who developed 18 different plans for additions to the historic courthouse. Three plans presented in late 2014 drew strong opposition from local citizens and nationally prominent architectural historians and were rejected by the Judges.   

Questions such as, “Do we renovate the historic courthouse or build a new one? Should all three courts occupy it? How many courtrooms are needed? How much will it cost? How will we pay for it?” deserve robust public discussion.   

The location and design of a new court facility should reflect a public consensus that develops over time through an open exchange of information and ideas. The current plans do not reflect such a consensus.

If our supervisors had conducted a public process, costly litigation could have been avoided and the new court facility would be finished and occupied.

P.K. Pettus