RICHMOND — Legislation addressing the future of the Augusta County Courthouse in Staunton cleared its first hurdle this week as a state Senate panel green-lighted the plan for Augusta County to hold a November referendum on whether or not the courthouse stays in Staunton.
The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee advanced the bill on a bipartisan 14-1 vote. Committee chairman Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) was the only dissenter.
Before the debate and vote, the committee amended the bill to make the referendum question more specific. Voters would be asked this November to decide if the courthouse should be built in Verona or left in downtown Staunton, but the question will explicitly say how much each option would cost.
Greatly detailed plans on each option, including their costs, are to be presented to Augusta residents at least 60 days before the November referendum, according to the legislation.
In November 2016, Augusta voters rejected a referendum that would have moved the courthouse into the county. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta), told the committee he was one of those voters who supported keeping the courthouse where it is.
"I'm still in favor of it, to leave it in Staunton," Hanger, R-Augusta, told the committee.
However, as he and a top county official pointed out to the committee, efforts to resolve the issue of space constraints and proper security at the existing site are at an impasse, which left revisiting the referendum as the only solution to a recent Circuit Court order demanding the deficiencies be remedied.
Augusta County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald cited Staunton's topography, overpriced adjacent real estate and a breakdown in communications with Staunton City Council for the current state of affairs.
One option, expanding the county's General District Courts building to accommodate more space, was not feasible because "it sits on a creek in a flood plain," and recent floods in Staunton "showed that was not a good idea," Fitzgerald said. A second option of purchasing the Atlantic Union Bank branch across the street from the courthouse also fizzled because, as Fitzgerald said, "they wanted $8 million for a building that had only been assessed at $2 [million]."
The county could not claim eminent domain to buy the property because it is in Staunton, and Fitzgerald claimed, "Staunton didn't want to do that."
The courthouse is a bone of contention between Augusta County and Staunton. Augusta County supervisors adopted a memorandum of understanding proposal with Staunton to rectify issues at the courthouse, but a faction of council led by Staunton Mayor Andrea Oakes is balking at the memorandum. They claim they do not want to address the memorandum until after the county referendum in November, should the measure and its House of Delegates companion clear the General Assembly this year.
The city, in turn, has pointed the finger back at Augusta County, claiming the county does not want to talk any more about keeping the courthouse where it is.
No one from Staunton addressed the panel about the issue Tuesday afternoon.
Deeds, the chairman of the committee, raised questions about why the issue was being brought back to the voters six years after it failed instead of the 10 years originally imposed by the failure — meaning it would not have come up again until 2026. He asked Hanger if there was a precedent in place that would have sped that voting process ahead four years.
"Not that I am aware of," Hanger replied. He did cite an instance in 2016, the same year Augusta voters rejected their courthouse move, when neighboring Rockbridge County overwhelmingly rejected relocating its courthouse in Lexington. Despite that failure, the General Assembly, with Hanger championing it, voted to go ahead and move the courthouse after the referendum failed.
Deeds said in an email Thursday he voted against the measure in committee because he felt it sets "bad precedent," and he will vote against it on the Senate floor.
"The law calls for referenda like this every 10 years. It has been just over five years since the voters of Augusta County rejected the idea of moving the courthouse," Deeds said. "In addition, I am afraid that this bill interferes with ongoing discussions between the governing bodies of the county and Staunton."
The bill now moves to the Senate floor for action. The House version, sponsored by Del. John Avoli (R-Staunton) has not been acted upon yet by the House Privileges & Elections Committee. Avoli attended the Senate committee meeting this week and plans to amend his bill to mirror Hanger's bill.
Bill Atkinson (he/him/his) is daily news coach for USA TODAY's Southeast Region-Unified Central, which includes Virginia, West Virginia and central North Carolina. He is based in Petersburg, Virginia. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Staunton News Leader: Virginia Senate to take up new vote for Augusta County courthouse