Augusta County voters are being asked this year what they want to do about the county courthouse, with their two options both involving gobs of money: $80 million for a new courthouse in Verona, $104 million for a new courthouse in Downtown Staunton.
Neither of the above is not an option, as it was in 2016, when county voters overwhelmingly rejected a plan to build a new courthouse in Verona.
Augusta County is under a standing court order to address space and safety issues at the current Augusta County Courthouse, which is located in Downtown Staunton.
“There is a court order from the State Supreme Court that we will build a courthouse. There is no decision to be made. They made it for you. You will build a new courthouse,” Augusta County Board of Supervisors Chair Gerald Garber said at a Sept. 15 public forum.
So, it’s not a matter of if, but where, and for how much?
Divide between the city, county
The current Augusta County Courthouse opened in 1901. The county has had its courthouse in Downtown Staunton since 1745.
After the failed 2016 referendum, county leaders, trying to get ahead of the court order that would later force their hand, tried for years, without success, to work with Staunton leaders to come to a cost-effective solution to the space and safety concerns that got more obvious as time went on.
After those efforts failed to get anywhere, the Augusta County Board of Supervisors asked for help from the General Assembly last year to get approval for another referendum.
With the backing of Del. John Avoli, a former Staunton mayor, and State Sen. Emmett Hanger, legislation authorizing a referendum seemed headed to swift passage earlier this year, but Staunton leaders were able to convince Gov. Glenn Youngkin to hold off on signing the bill, citing concern over the impact of a courthouse move on the city’s economy.
The governor eventually signed the bill in May, and since, city leaders have been largely silent on the courthouse matter, possibly a sign that they think the voters will end up approving the move to Verona.
A long-term plan
County leaders have been moving county business away from Downtown Staunton since the late 1980s.
The Board of Supervisors in 1987 authorized a study to determine how much space was needed for county government, which was then based in Staunton, spread across scattered offices and locations downtown.
At the time, the treasurer and commissioner of revenue offices had spilled up Augusta Street and were housed in the old Grand Piano building, “a remodeled furniture store with warehouse heat,” as described in the Programming and Location Study.
“The Social Services Department currently occupies a renovated grocery store, and old church, space in a retail strip and two trailers,” according to the study, which describes the building at 261 North Central near the current Hardees, a good hike from the county offices at 6 E. Johnson St.
The current director of Shenandoah Valley Social Services, Anita Harris, remembers that “(t)he renovated grocery store was the building next to Hardees … we had two trailers attached to the back of the building for additional office space. Retail space on the corner in the strip mall across Central housed our APS/Adult Services staff.”
The study recommended that “the better and more responsive decision” would be to develop a site in the county, which is what happened late in 1987 with the purchase of the former Smith Transfer complex in Verona.
The Master Plan for the Government Center was presented to the Board of Supervisors in 1988 and detailed a phased plan to begin the move of core services and offices from Staunton to Verona.
Phase I included the relocation of county administration and most core offices and departments, including the treasurer, commissioner of revenue, parks and recreation, community development, economic development, the service authority, and the extension office.
That move would be made in 1990, with Augusta County government offices and departments coming under one roof of Augusta County Government Center on the site of the Smith Transfer complex.
Phase II of the plan provided for the relocation of Shenandoah Valley Social Services, which moved to Verona in 1992, and Augusta County Public Schools offices, which relocated from the current Wilson schools complex to Verona in 2013.
Recommendations to the Masterplan in 2001 looked at the law enforcement and corrections systems to provide options for the relocation of the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office, which moved to Verona in 2004, the juvenile detention center (2005), and the Middle River Regional Jail (2006), and projected the future needs for circuit, general district, and juvenile and domestic relations courts.
The masterplan documents recommended the eventual relocation of Augusta County’s courts to be close to the Augusta County Government Center, law enforcement, and corrections facilities, which are all located within a half-mile of each other in Verona.
Where things go from here
Building the new courthouse in downtown Staunton would first require demolition of the existing courthouse at the corner of West Johnson and South Augusta streets.
According to Garber, demolition would add 18 to 24 months to the construction timeline.
Augusta County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald said a Verona courthouse would open on Sept. 1, 2025. If built in Staunton, the new courthouse would be ready May 1, 2027.
On top of the time delay with construction, another key issue with the Staunton option is that it’s assumed that a new downtown courthouse would only have a shelf life of 20 years before the county would need to again address space and safety concerns, according to Steve Landes, a former member of the House of Delegates who was elected in 2019 to serve as the clerk of Augusta County Circuit Court.
Verona is also a good choice, per Landes, because it would allow for more parking options for staff and visitors.
“That will allow us that opportunity to serve you better, and more efficiently and more effectively into the future,” Landes said.
If built in Verona, Avoli said that the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office would not have as far to transport prisoners for court cases, and would allow for growth and development at a site that is not land-locked like the courthouse footprint downtown.
Avoli also addressed the concern from city leaders about a courthouse move having a negative impact on downtown business, saying that individuals going to court are not spending money eating out or shopping downtown, but instead are interested in going to court, then leaving downtown.
“The brick and mortar is not going to move. What’s going to move is the function,” Avoli said.