Local News

County Leaders Give Go-Ahead for New Wake Courthouse

Posted July 23, 2007 2:13 p.m. EDT
Updated July 23, 2007 9:22 p.m. EDT

— Leaders on Monday agreed to move forward with plans for a new criminal justice center that they hope will help ease overcrowding in Wake County courtrooms.

Early estimates put the new courthouse, which would house all existing government offices, as well as the public defender's office, at about $215 million — $7 million less than the city's new convention center.

The current courthouse would continue to be used to try civil cases.

Construction on the new 440,000 square-foot building, which would sit on Salisbury Street across from the existing courthouse, could be completed sometime in 2012. Plans call for the county's judicial services building and parking deck to be demolished.

Architects will now begin working on the building's design.

But plans for the new building are not without some criticism of the hefty price tag. County Commissioners Chair Tony Gurley said higher-than-expected growth justifies the expense.

The county's population is expected to increase by 131 percent by 2030, according to estimates. Gurley said that means higher demand for the court system.

Others say that more courtrooms will not necessarily ease overcrowding unless there are also more judges to handle the caseload.

"You can get all the DAs you want, all the courtroom personnel you want," defense attorney Robert Henlsey said. "If you don't have judges to fill extra courtrooms, you're not going to cut down on the number."

In recent years, the courthouse, built in the late 1960s, has been riddled with problems stemming from overcrowding.

When completed in 1970, it had six courtrooms. But that number has since more than quadrupled as a result of the county's growing population. Eight more courtrooms could be added with a new building.

"It was adequate at that time but that was when you had 25 people in each courtroom — now you have 150 to 300 people in each courtroom, and no, it's not adequate," Hensley said.

Slower service time on the building's four elevators also stem from overcrowding. Courthouse employees have long complained about inefficiency and safety concerns. Put in place in 1970 and 1971 and updated in 1995, they run about 500 feet per minute – about half as fast as an elevator in a modern high-rise building.

Renovations to the building are also ongoing, and work is under way to bring the building's sprinkler system up to building code.

Last August, two floors of the courthouse were flooded after a pressurized pipe burst. Cleanup costs exceeded $50,000.