Bar News - March 7, 2008
Courthouse Cleanup and Construction Projects: A Roundup
By: Beverly Rorick
The Judicial Branch is confronting critical issues at several courthouses in New Hampshire, including urgent problems at two of its busiest facilities.
Asbestos removal at Hillsborough Superior Court North courthouse in Manchester won’t occur until mid- 2009 at the earliest. The cleanup will be costly and require temporary relocation of the court.
This article will deal with issues at six courthouses or jurisdictions: Hillsborough County Superior Court North; Merrimack County Superior Court; Keene District Court; Cheshire County Superior Court; Hampton/Exeter District Courts; and Henniker/Hillsborough District Courts.
In Manchester, Hillsborough County Superior Court North faces a major (temporary) relocation; the courthouse will have to be vacated so that asbestos can be removed from the building, built in 1968. The removal will be expensive, so funding must be lined up; the work is not expected to begin until the summer of 2009. “There’s a fair amount of asbestos there,” said Chief Justice of the Superior Court Robert J. Lynn. “We had hoped to remove half of it at a time, but consultants hired by Administrative Services have found that plan not feasible because of the particular structure of the building. It’ll all have to be done at one time.” That will not only require a large expenditure but will necessitate a temporary relocation of the court.
“I can give only a ball-park figure for the cost of this project,” said Judge Lynn. “The asbestos will have to be abated and the building gutted and then rebuilt. This will cost about $20 million, plus the funds for operating the court in its temporary quarters while the work is being done.”
Court officials say that the asbestos is being constantly monitored and that court employees and court-goers are not being exposed to unhealthy levels. “I have asked Administrative Services to test the air inside the building four times a year instead of the required two,” said Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John T. Broderick. “I believe we started testing in the 1990’s. I want to emphasize that everyone is safe. The most recent air tests conducted in January did not demonstrate the presence of a single asbestos fiber.”
Nevertheless, the asbestos must be removed. The courthouse building has suspended ceilings, and the asbestos-containing fire proofing is located on the underside of the roof deck above the ceilings; no one has gone above the ceilings to do preventive maintenance and deferring that maintenance cannot go on indefinitely.
“The legislative leadership, Administrative Services, the Governor’s office, and the Judicial Branch are actively engaged in discussions for the best plan going forward,” Broderick continued. “A number of options are being considered, but it is unlikely that any staff would be moved to temporary quarters until July 1, 2009 at the earliest.”
On the lower level of the courthouse where files are stored in boxes and cabinets, there has been a small amount of flaking from spray-on asbestos on overhead pipes. These files and cabinets have been thoroughly cleaned and have been moved out of the basement and taken to a storage area at Manchester District Court.
“We will not take any chances with the health of the public or any of our staff,” said Broderick.
Merrimack County Superior Court needs a new home. The North Main Street courthouse (Concord) is severely overcrowded and has several areas with serious security and safety issues. Remodeling or rebuilding the courthouse on it present site is not feasible and building a new courthouse on state land on Charles Doe Drive on Concord Heights near the Supreme Court has been opposed by city officials. Critics say that taking the courthouse away from downtown would make it less accessible to citizens, and contribute to traffic jams on an already busy Loudon Road.
In addition, some believe that the courthouse, along with the state capitol building, City Hall, the state and city libraries and other municipal buildings, provides an anchor of activity for downtown Concord that would be hard to replace.
A citizens’ group, Concord 20/20, has proposed having the courthouse built by a private developer on a site south of downtown that would be eligible for urban redevelopment tax incentives. Mary Susan Leahy, an attorney with the McLane firm and chair of a Concord 2020 subcommittee, says, “We are looking at using the tax credits to substantially lower the cost of constructing the courthouse. The state would lease the courthouse for a period of time long enough for the developer to qualify for the tax credits and then the state would have the option of purchasing.”
There is no definite time-frame for the project, but In June of this year preliminary budget proposals will be submitted to the governor's office. Several architectural firms are working on options to present to the Concord 20/20 group in the fall of 2008. Then in Feb. 2009 the governor will announce his capital budget, which will be passed by the Legislature in June of 2009.
Inadequacies of four other courts are also considered priorities by the NH Court Accreditation Commission, a committee with representation from all three branches of state government that oversees court facilities issues. Those courts are:
· Keene District Court, which is the sixth busiest district court in the state, suffers from both a lack of space and from security concerns. It is located on the second floor of the city hall building. The city would like to reclaim the space for its own needs. There have been recent discussions about relocating the Keene District Court to another downtown site. The court would lease its space from the county at the proposed site. The hope is that, within eight to ten years, the current superior and probate courts would be substantially renovated and enlarged and could house the district court as well.
· Cheshire County Courthouse, which now houses the superior and probate courts, is inadequate in many respects. An architect has been selected for a feasibility study (for expansion), which, it is estimated, will be completed in June or July of this year.
· Hampton/Exeter District Courts are in temporary locations and efforts are underway to find a common site; the Hampton District Court is in Brentwood and the Exeter District Court is in Seabrook.
· Henniker/Hillsborough District Courts have consolidated to a large extent but not completely. The clerk’s office of both courts is located at the Henniker District Court, but one day a week there is a Hillsborough session in the old Hillsborough District Court. Discussions are ongoing to find a common site for a new courthouse.
The Department of Administrative Services, Bureau of Court Facilities, compiles an activity summary on courthouse facilities. The latest report is dated Feb. 12, 2008 and covers all the courthouses in the state.