Originally created 03/17/04

Judicial site is still up in air



If at first, second or third try you don't succeed, make no firm decision. Consider four possibilities and study them all.

That's what Augusta commissioners decided late Tuesday night about a proposed Augusta Judicial Center site.

After months of discussion to narrow the site selection to Ninth and Walker, the commissioners opened up the field again, voting to do environmental testing at Regency Mall, May Park, the Muncipal Building and at a site between Telfair and Walker streets,

It was the fourth time the commission had changed its position on a judicial center site in two years, prompting some commissioners to wonder whether they would even be around when the proposed $74 million judicial center gets started.

"I just see us spinning our wheels," said Commissioner Don Grantham, who was in favor of the municipal building site. "We (commissioners) might all be gone before this is over."

Tuesday's decision passed by a vote of 8-to-1, with Andy Cheek abstaining. Betty Beard voted against the motion. The Ninth and Walker site already has had a first environmental analysis at a cost of $4,000 because of contamination concerns there, but Graves Engineering firm suggested a second analysis was needed at a cost of up to $15,000 on certain parcels to determine if contamination needs to be removed.

Some commissioners argued that the site shouldn't be abandoned because it would be a big economic boost to the area, although a judicial center site subcommittee, which includes judges, recommended that site be abandoned.

Commissioner Willie Mays chastised those against the Ninth and Walker site because it is bisected by a railroad, noting that the municipal building and other previously considered sites also are hindered by a rail line.

"It's so funny about the railroad," he said. "One place the railroad is the devil, another it's ignored, and another it's an angel."

He also suggested that certain property owners in the Ninth and Walker area had successfully delayed the project, placing it in limbo.

Three owners at the location have told the city they would not allow them in for a second environmental analysis.

Other commissioners said the municipal building was preferred because of possible contamination at the Ninth and Walker site and the time it would take to get approval of landowners for a study and a later purchase - possibly taking as long as 2007.

"I've never seen a better case of us denying the use of property because it wasn't the preferred site of a few people," said Commissioner Andy Cheek, who supported a second study at Ninth and Walker but proposed the compromise to study both sites.

Mr. Cheek said talk about possible contamination has been overblown.

"As far as experts are concerned, it just about provokes me to profanity," he said. "... By and large, you'd have to eat a handful of this dirt every day to get cancer."

Commissioners also were told that the city wouldn't be able to force property owners at the Ninth and Walker site to allow them on the site for a study by the process of condemnation and that gaining access for the second study there could take several months.

Commissioner Mays said he doesn't favor the municipal building site, where an addition and renovation of the current building would take place if approved. He said parking is already a problem there, "and now we're going to add another building next to this one."

But Mr. Mays said that no matter what site is chosen, the area should be studied for possible contamination.

"It should concern us whether a judicial center or chicken coop goes over there," he said.

Mr. Cheek said he now hopes studies at both the Ninth and Walker site and municipal building location will proceed simultaneously.

Bill Kuhlke, a member of the judicial center subcommittee, told commissioners a funding source also would need to be established to pay for a study at the municipal building site.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904

or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.