Bar News - May 18, 2016
Court News: Concord’s Superior Court to Stay Downtown
By: Dan Wise
The drawing depicts the proposed new Merrimack County Superior Court building, as viewed from the sidewalk on North Main Street in Concord. A corner of the existing courthouse appears on the right, behind the tree.
The diagram indicates the placement of the old and new courthouse buildings, with additional parking. The building housing the probate court, not shown, is located in the upper right corner of the land parcel.
A new Merrimack County courthouse will rise just behind the historic but overcrowded 19th century court building on North Main Street, according to legislation expected to be signed soon by Gov. Maggie Hassan. If all goes according to plan, and weather permitting, the new courthouse could open its doors in December 2017.
City and county officials, private developer (and NH Bar member) Steven Duprey, and Concord-area lawmakers last month succeeded in persuading the NH House and Senate to allow Merrimack County to take over the project with their plan to keep the courthouse downtown, by adding a building to the existing lot at a lower overall cost. The downtown option replaces the original plan for the state to build a courthouse on vacant land adjoining the NH Supreme Court and Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) buildings off Hazen Drive in Concord.
Hassan has already indicated she will sign legislation authorizing $15.7 million for the downtown courthouse, which is $900,000 less than what was budgeted for the project on state land. County officials said they will be able to hire a contractor at a lower cost because they are less burdened by state rules governing the design and construction process.
Merrimack County, which owns the existing courthouse building, has proposed to build a courthouse to meet the state’s requirements, demolishing a two-story county building next to the courthouse that now houses the 6th Circuit Probate Division and the county registry of deeds and other county government departments. That would create room on the site to build a multi-level outdoor parking lot that would expand parking from 103 to 150 spaces.
This new plan does bring potential for some disruption. The on-site parking would not be available immediately, said Merrimack County Administrator Steve Marro. Current plans call for demolishing the county building only after the existing courthouse is vacated and renovated. Marro said the county is making plans to identify and contract for off-site parking nearby.
Also, noise, dust and vibration of construction could disrupt courthouse operations. The enabling legislation for the downtown site does include a provision stating that the trial court will have the authority to halt or delay construction if it is disrupting trials, said Richard Uchida, an attorney working on the agreement between the county and the state.
Steve Lorentzen, an administrator overseeing courthouse projects for the NH Department of Administrative Services, said his department will review construction plans to ensure that the project meets construction standards for the state and the New Hampshire Judicial Branch. A space-planning feasibility study conducted for the Judicial Branch two years ago found that the Merrimack County Superior Court, the third-busiest in the state, requires a building with at least 34,500 square feet, three courtrooms and the capability to add a fourth.
Once construction is complete, the state will pay for the building and assume ownership of the superior courthouse portion of the site.
Another wrinkle to the plan is that the probate court will have to find a new home. The Judicial Branch has begun looking at options to convert the AOC headquarters, next to the NH Supreme Court building, into a probate division courthouse, said Lorentzen. If that were to happen, it’s unclear where the AOC offices would be housed, and whether they would move.
Meanwhile the existing court building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will be renovated to accommodate the Merrimack County Attorney’s Office, the Registry of Deeds, and other county offices.