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Commission Goes with Plan for Cheaper, Smaller Courthouse. Clerk Hopes It's Not Too Small
The Transylvania County Commission will seek qualifications from architects and contractors to work on a new county courthouse. A trimmed-down version might be built with no new taxes.
BREVARD — The Transylvania County Commission devoted about 20 minutes of discussion Monday to set the path of a project that has stymied local leaders for nearly two decades — the construction of a new courthouse.
After County Manager Jaime Laughter presented several courthouse construction options to commissioners at a capital workshop, they agreed to move ahead with plans for a first phase as small as 45,000 square feet and to include the option of using alternative materials such as precast concrete walls.
Commissioner Larry Chapman also advocated for a minimum of aesthetically pleasing features because the building will not be in a highly visible location.
“I’m not concerned with spending a whole boatload of money to make it look pretty on the outside,” he said. “It needs to be functional and meet the requirements of the space needs.”
This comment was based on the Commission’s previous decision to build the courthouse at a site on Morris Road, well north of downtown Brevard, resulting in a potential savings of about $13-million.
Laughter said in an email Tuesday that she was directed to seek requests for qualifications from an architect and a construction manager at risk to build a first phase between 45,000 and 60,000 square feet. The design would also allow for future expansion.
Going with the smaller end of that range — along with the chosen location and the use of alternative construction materials — could reduce the cost of the project to an estimated $25.4 million, Laughter said at the meeting.
Such numbers are “very preliminary,” she cautioned in her email: “The estimates provide enough information to give us a start on design, but we will not have more refined numbers on cost of construction or ultimate financing costs until we get further into design.”
Still, that amount is less than half the cost of the previous plans for a downtown courthouse and could allow the county to avoid a tax increase that seemed inevitable after a more detailed capital workshop led by a county consultant last September.
Since the 2019 fiscal year, $1.2 million in annual property taxes have gone into a fund assigned to pay for courthouse construction. Depending on interest rates, that should roughly equal the yearly payment on a 40-year federal loan that would be needed to cover the cost of the most trimmed-down project, Laughter told commissioners.
“There’s only one of those estimates that would get us in the ballpark . . . and not require additional revenue,” she said.
At the hour-long workshop, Laughter presented a list of future capital projects including a $35 million Transylvania campus for Blue Ridge Community College, school improvements expected to be paid for by a voter-approved $68 million bond issue, as well as a $5.8-million cell the county needs to construct at its landfill before the end of 2025.
The total for all the county’s capital needs had previously been estimated at $246 million, Laughter said, and “we do expect that to go up.”
Most of the last part of the workshop focused on the courthouse, the cost of which, unlike the bill for capital needs as a whole, could go down considerably compared to previous plans.
When consultants last year provided new estimates to adjust for rising construction prices, they projected the most ambitious proposal for a facility built near the current downtown location would cost about $57 million.
A similar structure on Morris Road would cost about $44 million, Laughter said at the meeting in January when the Commission chose that location.
That price was for 60,000-square feet of working space as well as an unfinished third floor “shell” bringing the total to 90,000 square feet. However, a recent survey of counties with about the same number of court cases as Transylvania found that their typical courthouse size was about 45,000 square feet, or about double the size of the current downtown courthouse, Laughter said Monday.
Commission Chair Jason Chappell wrote in a text Tuesday morning that the smallest option was what was agreed upon: “1st phase around 45,000 sq ft designed with expansion (horizontal).”
But Laughter wrote in her Tuesday email that the Commission was not necessarily committed to the smallest size: “Commissioners asked that the RFQ be for a phased design with the first phase being between 45,000 square feet and 60,000 square feet with the ultimate future need being 90,000.”
On Monday, she said that surveyed officials in counties with similar case loads as Transylvania had also “repeatedly” said they did not have enough space, “so I do not want to imply that they were all comfortable with 45,000 (square) feet.”
Clerk of Superior Court Kristi Brown isn’t sure she would be either.
Brown, who has long advocated for replacing the courthouse, said Tuesday she is “reservedly optimistic” about the Commission’s decisive action.
The county has been discussing the need for a courthouse since 2005, according to a timeline on the county’s website, and several commissioners have previously said the need was known years earlier.
It was reemphasized in September, when Peter Knight, the senior resident Superior Court Judge for the district that includes Transylvania, sent a letter to the county outlining the current building’s many deficiencies, including leaks, mold, collapse-prone ceilings and cramped quarters that could compromise the legal integrity of proceedings.
Monday’s discussion was listed on the meeting agenda only as a “Capital Workshop,” and no backup documentation was provided before the meeting. In a text responding to a question about this approach, Chappell called it “normal practice for a capital workshop” and said commissioners would publicly discuss the project in more detail once the qualifications are submitted.
Brown didn’t criticize the minimal notice, but did say the decision “kind of caught me by surprise.”
The smallest courthouse she previously remembers being discussed would have housed 60,000 square feet, she said, and she wants to make sure the new plan includes space for essentials such as three courtrooms and a dedicated jury room.
"I had not heard anyone talking about cutting it down to 45,000 square feet,” she said. “To the best of my recollection I had not heard that.”
Anticipating these concerns, the Commission agreed to a phased approach that would include a design to allow a horizontal expansion rather than the previously considered third-floor shell.
Brown also worried about potential disruptions to court activities during any future expansion. That could be addressed, Laughter said, by requesting that the designated expansion area would not be adjacent to courtrooms.
The request for qualifications could also specify that respondents have experience with alternative materials and bad soil. That was in answer to a concern raised by Commission Vice Chair Jake Dalton who said that the use of precast walls without an adequate foundation could lead to cracking because of the area’s unstable ground.
But he also said, at the end of the discussion, that he agreed with taking swift action.
“We need to get this moving and get it done,” he said.