Bar News - March 18, 2015
New Merrimack County Courthouse Proposed
By: Dan Wise
Although many city, county and state officials agree that the time has come for a new Merrimack County Superior Court building, the location of the future courthouse remains an open question.
Seen here in an old postcard, the 163-year-old Merrimack County Courthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but the building is hard-pressed to house the third-busiest superior court in the state.
An artist’s rendering of the two-story, 34,000 square foot courthouse that could be built on vacant land in the state office park on Hazen Drive, near the NH Supreme Court and Administrative Office of the Courts buildings.
Gov. Maggie Hassan’s capital budget includes $18 million for a new Merrimack County courthouse, with her “first preference” being to keep it in downtown Concord. Court officials and a state agency last year commissioned a space-planning study and a preliminary design for a new courthouse on unused state land on Hazen Drive, adjoining the NH Supreme Court complex. The plan is for a two-story, 34,500-square-foot building.
A recent fire in the public area of the existing downtown county courthouse caused water damage in several areas of the building, calling fresh attention to its many inadequacies.
Built in 1852, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There have been two minor expansions over the years, but the growing volume of cases the superior court handles has severely outpaced any minor increases in storage capacity. Office space also is inadequate, and there are safety concerns; incarcerated defendants must be walked through public areas to reach the courtrooms. The court, with space for only two judges, is the third-busiest superior court in the state, behind Rockingham and Hillsborough North superior courts, which each have three or more judges sitting full-time.
William McGraw, the outgoing superior court clerk for Merrimack County, says he’s glad to see the courthouse finally rise to the top of the capital budget wish list. It’s a beautiful building, he says, but security problems, the lack of a third courtroom that could seat a jury, electrical and heating inadequacies – the list of shortcomings goes on and on – all point to the need for a new courthouse.
Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau agrees. “There’s an urgent need to update this facility,” she said recently.
Previous attempts to identify a downtown location for a new courthouse have produced no feasible options, Nadeau says, and the Hazen Drive location has land ready for building and would be the simplest solution.
The NH Department of Administrative Services will ultimately decide where and how to build a new courthouse, if and when the Legislature agrees to fund it.
Dan St. Hilaire, a former Merrimack County attorney and current member of the Concord City Council, hopes the state will ask the city for help in finding a solution that keeps the court downtown.
“There are always options,” he says, adding that finding a downtown location is economically important for the city. The Hazen Drive location, just off Loudon Road, is within the city and offers easy parking, but St. Hilaire says that if the court were located there, patrons would be more inclined to jump in their cars and go elsewhere when done with their court business.
According to St. Hilaire, one option for conversion is a vacant, city-owned office building formerly occupied by the Department of Employment Security on North Main Street. It has a small parking lot, but is only a couple of blocks from an underused city parking garage.
The Circuit Court family and district divisions are housed on state land on Clinton Street, adjoining the grounds of the NH State Hospital, but there is not enough room there for another courthouse, according to last year’s analysis that recommended the Hazen Drive site. Steve Lorentzen, administrator of plant and property management for the NH of the Department of Administrative Services, said that once a site is decided on, it usually takes 18 to 24 months to complete a project of this scale.
Building a new Merrimack County courthouse has appeared on the Judicial Branch’s wish list before, but it had taken a back seat to more pressing needs, such as a new Cheshire County courthouse, completed in 2013, which now houses all of the courts in Keene in a single modern and secure building.
“We are hoping we can move forward with this project,” says Nadeau. “The Judicial Branch is thankful to the governor for including it in her capital budget.”
A space facilities plan developed last year calls for also moving the probate division of the Circuit Court in Concord, now located in a county building on the same lot as the courthouse, but that plan was not funded.
The governor’s proposed capital budget also includes $3.1 million to continue implementing the NH e-Court Project.