“Are we still able to hold court today? Yes, we are,” said Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts, who has been involved in the process since the beginning. “But as the years tick by, it’s going to become more and more challenging for us to do that.”
The current courthouse has just two courtrooms, and Letts has been seeing more and more instances when three courts are needed in a given day. In 2013, that happened three times, but it could have happened much more. One case in particular would have tied up a third courtroom for three weeks if a last-minute development hadn’t kept it from being heard in Jackson County. Though case filings have dipped slightly since the recession hit, between 1987 and 2012 those numbers have risen 176 percent.
“I can say with 99 percent certainty there will be more filings 10 years from now than there are now,” Letts said.
It was that squeeze that prompted Letts to bring the matter to the commissioners’ attention, and that’s what spurred them to sign a $34,000 contract with Heery for a needs assessment. After signing the contract in October, Heery surveyed people who use and work in the building about their space needs, and then the company sent a team of people to spend a week touring the building and interviewing those people who work there. After synthesizing those results with rules of thumb about courthouse space and design, Heery came back with its recommendations.
The results suggested that Jackson County consider an addition that would add half again as much space to the existing justice center portion of the county building, but space wasn’t the only topic of discussion.
“In terms of building security, our initial assessment is that judicial operations are not very secure,” said Doug Kleppin, vice president of Heery’s design branch. “The only screening that occurs is at the entrance to individual courtrooms.”
Of the 21 county courthouses Letts has been to, he told commissioners, 17 have full building security. The four without — Jackson, Macon, Swain and Graham — are all in this neck of the woods.
“I think that when we talk about security in a courthouse, the general public thinks about security for the judges, the jury, the prosecutor — things of that nature — but that’s not necessarily true,” said Shannon Ashe, special agent for the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation. “There’s the victims, the defendant and people who just come to watch court. And we have a duty to protect them.”
Screening for weapons is one part of security, but maintaining separate corridors for victims, defendants and the general public is also key. Modern courthouses have separate avenues for each of these groups, but that’s not the case right now in Jackson County.
Accessibility is also an issue, Kleppin said. When it was first built in the 1990s, the building met the standards required, but that’s not the case anymore. To prove the point, he showed commissioners a photograph of a men’s restroom labeled handicapped-accessible.
“I would tell you that a person in a wheel chair could probably not get into that space. If they did get in, they could not get out,” Kleppin said.
Any renovation or addition should take accessibility into account, he said — for jurors, for attorneys, for audience members, for anyone else involved with court proceedings or related county functions.
Wayfinding, or directional signage, also needs improvement. Heery’s needs assessment found that the building is difficult to navigate, a significant challenge when you’re dealing with people who might already be living one of the most stressful days of their lives, Kleppin said.
Kleppin also recommended an overhaul of the building’s mechanical and electrical systems. Such systems are much more energy-efficient today, he said, and the ones in place now are reaching the end of their life anyway.
“You expect a life expectancy around 20 years and that’s where you’re at,” Kleppin said of the mechanical system. “They’re doing fine, but they live outside. There’s corrosion, there are things that just start to impact that equipment.”
In addition, he said, the study revealed that fire alarms and exit lighting might not be precisely up to code.
Heery delivered a set of options for commissioners to consider when deciding whether to move ahead with the project, favoring an alternative that would build the entire 35,000 square feet onto the front of the building as designated courtroom space.
“The purpose shouldn’t just be office space,” he said. “It should be judicial space.”
Going forward, commissioners will have to take a good hard look at the needs assessment and then decide whether to move forward any further with the project.
“We’re still not close to the idea of putting a shovel in the ground, but I think our next step would be to look at programming, a schematic drawing,” said Chuck Wooten, Jackson County manager.
That step would entail calculating how much square footage should go into each office, each hallway, each closet and sketching out some floor plans. From there, commissioners would have a better idea of what 35,000 square feet would get them — and of how much it would cost. Wooten anticipates a cost of $300 to $375 per square foot, so that adds up fast. However, he said, going for it just might prove the wisest course of action.
“It probably would be wise to try and bite the bullet and do the whole project,” he said. “Otherwise, I suspect 15 years from now whoever is here will be talking about how do we renovate this building.”
And, County Attorney J.K Coward pointed out, commissioners might not have much choice.
Though Letts presented his case “diplomatically,” Coward told commissioners, “This is the judicial branch of the government telling the legislative branch you have to do something. It’s not optional. It’s not something you can say, ‘Let’s put it off until the next batch gets elected.’”
Of course, it will take well beyond the next election before a new justice center is completed and in use, if indeed commissioners go that route. It will take time to plan the project, do the construction and renovate the existing building, probably four to five years before it’s all said and done.
But that all depends on the county commission’s next move.
“I think the ball’s kind of in our court now with this information,” Wooten said. “I think we do have a need.”
State judges eye WNC outpost
While Jackson County commissioners are deciding how to respond to a needs assessment declaring their courthouse 35,000 feet too small, they’ll have another choice to consider: whether to make space for an administrative law judge to sit in Jackson County.
“We want to have a local presence. We don’t want everything to be done in Raleigh,” Julian Mann, director and chief administrative law judge in the state, told Jackson County commissioners Monday night. “We want to replicate what’s been done in Guilford County and in Mecklenburg County and have the local bar, the local citizens to go through the process of determining who that judge will be.”
Administrative law deals with everything from alcohol permitting to hospital regulations to environmental cases, Mann said, and so would have ample applicability to issues Western North Carolina deals with.
By having a judge sitting in Western North Carolina, people in the region would have more access to that kind of legal resource, and people who otherwise would never make the trip to Sylva would find themselves spending time there, Mann said.
“What the office of administrative hearings really gets out of this is the ability to rotate judges in the western part of the state and complete a circuit,” Mann said.
There’s a catch, though. Jackson County would have to provide the approximately 4,000 square feet needed to house the judge and the spaces he would use. That’s space not factored into the 35,000-square-foot addition a recently released needs assessment calls for. At $300 to $325 per square feet, that’s not cheap.
Commissioners will not likely make a decision on Mann’s offer until after they get further along in the planning process and have a better idea of the project’s scope and cost, said Chuck Wooten, Jackson County manager.
“I think once you get that it will give you an idea as to whether you want to do that or not,” Wooten said.