Originally created 01/27/01

Group picks Telfair Street judicial site



County officials and local judges say they have chosen the 600 block between Greene and Telfair streets as the site for their $40 million judicial center complex.

Those part of the site selection group say the No. 2 site, a mostly vacant city block just west of the U.S. District Courthouse, is no longer under consideration.

"This is the favored site," Judge Duncan Wheale said of the 600 block, which is the next block over from the Municipal Building and the city's major law firm offices. "This is where it is going to be."

Judge Wheale said the site selection group, headed by Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr., decided on the 600 block because it offers the best access to parking lots. An average of 750 people are in court on a normal day, he said.

Building the 200,000-square-foot center at the No. 2 site, which had been identified as a preferred site on Augusta Tomorrow's 2001 master plan map, would have required the construction of a costly parking deck.

Also, the site is three blocks away from the 3,000-square-foot courtroom the county plans to continue operating in the Municipal Building for high-profile trials.

Acquiring the 600 block likely will entail a land swap with First Presbyterian Church, which during the past several years has been buying parcels of the block as part of a plan to expand.

In exchange for its holdings on the 600 block, county officials propose giving the church a proportionate slice of the 5-acre Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center parking lot just south of the church.

The county would make up for the lost spaces by acquiring a parcel at the northwest corner of Sixth and Fenwick streets and converting it to additional surface parking.

"If we can work out a three-way deal, we can utilize parking on the Civic Center grounds (for the courts) during the day when most of the spaces are empty," Augusta Commissioner Steve Shepard said.

The proposed judicial center complex would allow the county to consolidate courtrooms for all 15 judges in one location, in addition to all court clerk and district attorney functions.

The resulting vacancies created within the Municipal Building would allow far-flung departments to relocate and operate from a central location.

The current lack of courtroom space "creates monumental problems," Judge Wheale said. Courtrooms are overcrowded, and judges are unable to control their own dockets, resulting in scheduling problems for people called to court to serve on juries or testify in cases.

The Augusta Commission meets Feb. 6 to prioritize projects eligible for funding under the city's special purpose sales tax. The judicial center project has applied for $20 million in funding during the next five years.

The remaining $20 million would be funded by other sources or financed through a general obligation bond, Mr. Shepard said.

Without funding, the judicial center project may be put on hold.

"What's at the end of the (sales tax) list is what suffers," he said.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or bized@augustachronicle.com.