The Southold Town Board pushed to finalize plans for a new Justice Court at their work session on Tuesday, emphasizing that the relocation should not wait much longer.
“I’ve been working on the court since I’ve been on the Town Board,” Town Board member Jill Doherty said. “It’s not an easy thing to decide, and we’ve gone round and round and round. We’ve done a lot of work on it and I think we need to just make a decision on it.”
The board seemed to favor building a new justice court behind the Peconic Community Center — a less expensive alternative to earlier proposals. The town already owns the property and building costs are estimated to fall between $5 and $6 million. Estimated costs to demolish the current Town Hall and build a new one fall around $19.5 million, according to town engineer Michael Collins, bringing the price for both to around $25 million.
“Broadly, you need to house the court somewhere, ideally in a building or location where they have exclusive use due to security needs. Ideally, you would consolidate town offices into a single building, though you could continue to operate out of two buildings,” Mr. Collins said.
The board considered several iterations of plans to relocate the Justice Court and build a new Town Hall over the summer. An original suggestion to renovate the town hall annex for the Justice Court and build a new Town Hall clocked in around $37 million.
The price tag has stalled discussions. July projections from the town comptroller indicated that a subsequent proposal to leave the basement and second floor of the annex unfinished for office use, bringing costs down to an estimated $32.5 million, could still mean a nearly 6% hike in property taxes over the next few years.
Town Supervisor Scott Russell suggested forming a committee of local professionals to create a plan for government buildings over the next few months, rather than moving forward with concrete action.
“Why don’t we create a committee or a local group that can come in, objectively look at everything, and tell them, ‘Look in six months, can you give us a master plan on where you think we need to go as a town?’” he said, pointing to the high costs of the proposal. “We’re going to need to involve the public sooner or later anyway … I don’t know why we can’t just reach out to a local community of talented people, particularly all the architects we have out here.”
Town Board member Greg Doroski suggested taking action on the Justice Court for now and putting a committee together to focus on other municipal buildings. Ms. Doherty said she agrees.
“We have the land, the prices are only going to go up, we’re only going to grow,” she said. “I think we should move ahead with the court on Peconic Lane and start really exploring that and then put a group together to explore the rest of the buildings and what we’re going to do because if we keep kicking the can down the road, we’re never going to get anything done.”
“We’ve gone through so many different configurations and none of them have been cheap either, and trying to fit the court into buildings that it doesn’t really fit. It just seems like this issue has been around for a long time. And we need to deal with it,” Town Board member Louisa Evans added. “If you build from the ground up, then at least we can get the configuration that’s necessary for that court building.”
Mr. Russell responded that $6 million for a court that meets only a few times a week seems “pretty substantial” and emphasized the importance of honoring input from stakeholders.
“If you were sincere when you accepted the input of the stakeholders for every hamlet, then read Peconic’s, because they made it perfectly clear they don’t want government buildings piling up … in their hamlet,” he said. “You’ve got to reconcile that as well.”
Ms. Doherty suggested holding a public hearing and said the court works around the schedules of town committees.
“We have to do something. We keep talking about it, nothing will ever get done. It’s been talked about for years, way before you were supervisor,” she said. “There’s always been a space problem and I think it’s time to fish or cut bait. Let’s do something with this court.”
She pointed out that an upgraded building can be more efficient and less costly to the town in the future. Town Board member Brian Mealy echoed agreement.
“We have to move on something and I particularly see the court as something that we can move on,” he said. “I agree with that, exactly what you said about the stakeholders have to be brought along, but I think that this is a seminal moment in terms of momentum, at least for me as a new board member, that we all agreed that the courthouse can be moved on. So I don’t want that to be lost in the details.”
Ms. Nappa added that with “real estate prices the way they are,” she doesn’t think the town will be able to find and purchase another parcel suited for a municipal building. She pointed out that police officers have also expressed concern about travel time to the court building — the Peconic Community Center is about half a mile from the police department.
“I think that we need to move forward,” she said.
Mr. Collins said the next step is to put out a bid for professional services to develop a design, the bid package and the final cost estimate. He added that he’s not sure how the town would like to fund the building but “it’s always going to get more expensive. Unfortunately, with municipal construction, the biggest determining factor is cost of labor,” he said.
Mr. Russell pointed out that supplies cost more right now and prices will likely drop in a few years when global supply chain issues are resolved.
“The labor cost is not going to go down. The supply chain might go down and might even go up, but the labor costs will always go up,” Ms. Doherty responded. She added that the court project is separate from other upgrades to municipal buildings and said “the court has its own unique circumstances that we need to upgrade and make sure the building is safe and make sure it’s safe for everybody.”
“I understand we were talking about a stakeholders group, but you’re talking about pushing this decision on the annex and Town Hall another six months, and I don’t think we can wait that long,” Ms. Nappa said. “Michael came to us in July of last year and nothing happened. They’re trying to hold these buildings together. I understand it’s a lot of money, but we owe the employees of the town … a decision.”
Mr. Collins said using the Peconic Lane property to build a new court rather than renovating the annex would be a “substantial cost reduction” and pointed out that if the town chooses to sell the annex, it could go towards building costs. Mr. Doroski suggested selling the annex while real estate prices are high.
Ms. Nappa said the board needs to establish a deadline to decide.
At a regular Town Board meeting later that day, Greenport resident Randy Wade suggested consolidating the justice court with Town Hall, which Town Board members had discussed rebuilding on the current parcel, rather than establishing a new building on Peconic Lane.
“You would be so much better off if you had access to the courthouse as another meeting room for the days of the week when it’s not being used by the courthouse,” she said.
Ms. Doherty responded that the parcel can’t hold a building large enough to accommodate all town employees and the court system. She emphasized that the town has done its due diligence in searching for options and that a decision needs to be made.
Greenport resident Chris North said he agrees that a justice court should be built behind the Peconic Community Center for safety reasons.