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Jackson eyes courthouse expansion

Just shy of a decade after county offices moved into a brand-spankin’ new Haywood County Justice Center, Jackson County is considering its own courthouse overhaul — and it’s using the Haywood project as a model. Jackson pulled in Heery International, the same company that designed and built the Haywood courthouse, to do a preliminary needs assessment, and now commissioners are waiting on the results to come back before planning the next step. 


“The reason we used these folks was because they came highly recommended as being involved in the Haywood County project,” said Chuck Wooten, Jackson County manager. 

In October, Jackson County signed a $34,000 contract with Heery, who then distributed a survey to those who use the courthouse, asking how many employees they have, how many they might have in the future, what kinds of space they need to do their job and myriad other questions. In mid-January, a team of seven people, including five architects, came from Orlando to spend a week on-site to meet with people who work at the courthouse and see the building first-hand. Now, they’re tying up a preliminary report that will likely be presented at one of the commissioners’ March meetings. 

The draft results, however, are already on Wooten’s desk. The verdict? That the justice center needs an additional 35,000 square feet, more than half again its current size. 

“I had gone to the county manger [Wooten] and also the commissioners and told them that we were really starting to have issues with space, and it was becoming more of an issue as time went on,” said Brad Letts, a Superior Court judge who frequently holds court in both Haywood and Jackson counties. “We needed to begin the process of examining what our uses were today and get a better feel for what our needs were going forward.” 

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Why build?

Currently, the Jackson County justice center comprises about 60,000 square feet and includes only two courts. During 2013, both courtrooms were full on 97 of the 247 days when court was held, according to the court schedule. On three of those days, three courts were held, meaning that courtroom space had to be finagled using another room in the building. On 43 percent of business days in 2013, one of the two courtrooms was filled. Those numbers indicate a need to act now, Letts said. 

“You just tend to see an increase in population, and with an increase in population, you have an increase in use of court,” he said. “Everything from traffic violations to custody matters.”

As part of the needs study, Heery looked at trends in court filing over the past 25 years. Total filings have increased 176 percent between fiscal years 1987-88 and 2012-13, though there was a dip between the highest level of 13,347 filings in 2008-09 and the 2012-13 level of 10,404. Assuming that the county’s population continues to follow an overall upward trend, Letts said, that number would likely continue to increase. 

And space isn’t the only issue with the existing courthouse, Wooten said. At age 20-plus, the building’s heating and air conditioning system is “pretty much at the end of its life cycle,” Wooten said. Poor signage makes it difficult for people who aren’t familiar with the building to find their way around, and much of the structure — including the jury boxes — isn’t handicapped-accessible. But aside from the lack of space, the biggest problem, Wooten said, is lack of security. 

“The only security in the building is in front of the courtrooms,” he said. “Everyone felt like we needed to have a more secure building.”

In Haywood County, the public comes in through a single entrance and must pass through manned metal detectors in order to get past the lobby. In the Jackson County building, security only begins at the door of the courtroom. By a similar token, the building doesn’t have all the separate entrances for defendants, victims, witnesses and jurors necessary to keep these parties from interacting with each other. 

“Potentially, everybody could be brought into contact with you before you enter the courtroom,” Wooten said. 


How big?

All parties seem to agree that Jackson County’s justice center needs an overhaul. The question is, how big does it have to be? 

“If you’re talking about doing anything less than 50 percent [expansion], it’s probably not worth the expense of going through the process,” said Bob Clark, a Waynesville-based attorney who is in the Haywood courthouse almost daily and is also familiar with Jackson. 

The total planning and design process could cost as much as $650,000, Wooten said, so there’s a hefty price tag before even a single blade of grass is moved. If you’re going to do it, it’s important to do it right. But while Letts agrees that the expansion should include the full 35,000 square feet, Wooten isn’t so sure.

“What you have right now is a wish list,” he said. “I see that number as coming down. How much it comes down, I don’t know. What we have now is a big number with a lot of dreams in it.”

The 11-page needs assessment survey threw the door wide open for employees to shoot for the stars, he said. The survey asked for everything from visitor traffic to conference requirements to a list of both existing and future personnel. It asked for a list of existing and anticipated future support spaces, such as closets and reception areas. It even asked for a list of any past, present or future changes that could alter that department’s requirements. In short, it gave employees a blank slate to list their best-case scenario work environment. 

“We didn’t put any parameters on anybody,” Wooten said. “A person was able to ask for whatever they thought they might like to have.”

If the commissioners decide to move forward with the project, the next step would be to figure out how those dreams might look in reality. In this phase, called programming, consultants would sketch out schematic diagrams for each department and determine how big those offices should be. That contract could go to Heery or to another company, Wooten said. Though he couldn’t put a number on the potential price tag, Wooten anticipates that this step would cost significantly more than the needs assessment. 

And as far as actually breaking ground, that’s a long way off, assuming that the commissioners even pursue the project to that point. 

“We’re still probably at least two years away from a shovel in the ground,” Wooten said. 


A look back at Haywood 

The planning and construction of Haywood County’s courthouse was also a long process, spanning years of discussion and fueling heated controversy between the project’s proponents and citizens who felt the $18 million project was overdone and unnecessary. In the process, a fourth floor disappeared from the plans, but three district courtrooms, two superior court courtrooms, a courtroom for the clerk of courts, another for the magistrate and a whole host of offices, mediation rooms and auxiliary departments were built.

It’s been nearly 10 years since Clerk of Court June Ray moved into her new office in May 2005, but she had her answer ready when asked whether she believed the courhouse was overbuilt.

“No. No, I do not,” she said. “We use this facility.”

According to the 2013 court schedule, all five of the available courtrooms were never used on the same day. Four of the five courtrooms were used on the same day 15 times; conversely, on 12 days in 2013, no courtrooms were used. The most common use level was two courtrooms per day, occurring 107 times.

However, Letts said, the schedule doesn’t tell the whole story. When a special jury trial is called, such as a murder trial that may last for weeks or months, that room is assigned on top of the existing schedule, and unscheduled uses pop up all the time. 

“There have been times we’ve had five [courtrooms full],” he said. “I would say that’s happening two to three times per month.”

Based on the courtroom schedule, the average use in 2013 was two courtrooms per day. Letts said the building is actually averaging 2.5 courts per day. 

“We’ve been here roughly five years, and you want the building to last you for decades,” he said. “If we’re right at half capacity, that’s excellent. Well-designed and well-planned.”

Letts has held court in roughly one quarter of North Carolina’s 100 counties, and he unequivocally holds Haywood’s building as the best. Features such as the flow of people — departments are placed so that the heaviest-traffic departments are on the first floor, with the next level of volume on the second and the fewest people going to the third — separate entrances for witnesses, defendants and victims and easy handicapped accessibility give the building “perfect” functionality and design, Letts said. 

And its usage is increasing, both in caseload and in people. In 2003, Haywood County saw 525 court cases; in 2013, 626. Between 500 and 2,000 people now pass through its metal detectors every day, according to Heidi Warren of the Haywood County Sheriff’s Department. Though Warren does not have numbers going back to 2003, she is certain usage is on the rise.  

“I can comfortably and without hesitation say that those numbers have increased over the past 10 years,” she said. 

Lt. Mike Price, who often mans the metal detectors, agrees. 

“Some days are slow, but when you have three and four courts a day and you have jury selection, it’s nothing to see 1,000 people come through a metal detector,” he said. 

Attorneys who work in the building also hail its design and construction.

“The justice center is a modern, functional building that will last and be used for 50 years or more,” said Frank Queen, who has been practicing law for 37 years. “It was an absolute necessity that something like that be built at the time when the county commissioners did it.”

But Gavin Brown, Waynesville mayor and practicing attorney, cautions against relying too much on the opinions of those who benefit from a building’s amenities. Much like a surgeon whose paycheck grows best in a hospital with a plethora of operating rooms, lawyers like himself make more money when a courthouse is large, with plenty of open rooms. 

“If I’m a surgeon, I want that room open,” he said. 

But as to whether there are too many open rooms, that’s hard to quantify, Brown said. It depends not just on how many courtrooms are occupied at one point in a day or how many cases are handled annually, but also on how many people enter a plea bargain and how many go to trial, how many people are involved in each case and how long the cases take. 


Challenges to efficient design

But it’s precisely because of that uncertainty, Letts said, that functional courthouses require so much space. Sometimes a Superior Court judge who is scheduled to be there for a whole week finishes up before lunch on Friday, but you can’t schedule another court on top of that in the hopes the first will end early. Sometimes a defendant will enter a plea deal days before the trial is scheduled, but you can’t fail to have a courtroom available on the assumption that a deal will be reached. And because courthouses handle so many different people who need to be moved through separate physical channels — for instance, a child abuse victim must be able to enter the courthouse so that he won’t encounter the person accused of abusing him — they are, by definition, inefficient spaces. 

“Courthouses in general are very inefficient facilities because there’s a lot of common space that you just have to have,” Wooten agreed. 

In addition, there’s a lot of space that works most efficiently when housed under the same roof as the courthouse but is not directly involved in what happens in the courtroom. There are mediation rooms used to help parties settle their differences without going to trial, there are guardians ad litem who help advocate for children whose families are caught up in legal issues and there are auxiliary departments such as mapping and tax collection. The clerk of court, too, must plan to store state records for 60 years, Superior Court records for 10 years and District Court records for three. All of that takes space. 

But it also takes money. Aside from the $18 million it took to build the courthouse, there’s all the overhead costs associated with building insurance, custodial services, heating, cooling, maintenance — the list goes on. Wooten estimates that adding 35,000 square feet to the Jackson County building would cost the county about $100,000 annually, not counting the cost of hiring additional people in the sheriff’s department to man the metal detectors that would most likely be installed with the building’s completion. 

That’s why, Wooten said, there will be plenty of discussion and winnowing of wants versus needs when Heery’s report comes back in full. 

“This is just a very first step in what I think is going to be a continuing and long discussion,” he said. 

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