Home / News / Botetourt County Circuit Court staff move out ahead of courthouse's demolition

Botetourt County Circuit Court staff move out ahead of courthouse's demolition

Oct 11, 2023Oct 11, 2023

Contractors dismantle the judge's bench Friday in Botetourt County Circuit Court in Fincastle.

Seen through an ornate vault doorway, staff and contractors move furniture Friday out of the Botetourt County Circuit Court in Fincastle.

Assistant County Administrator Jon Lanford stands outside the Botetourt County Courthouse in Fincastle.

Tommy Moore, clerk of the circuit court, stands outside his team's temporary new offices at the Old District Court Building in Fincastle.

The Botetourt County Circuit Courthouse in Fincastle.

Documents dating to the 1700s are cared for by the clerk of the circuit court's office.

Staff and contractors move furniture from the historical circuit courthouse into the Old District Court Building Friday, June 2, 2023, in Fincastle.

FINCASTLE — The Botetourt County civil servants who have worked in the circuit courthouse over the years since its reconstruction in 1975 said their goodbyes last week to the aging structure.

The circuit court clerk and his staff, plus the judge and his secretary, shut down their operations Friday and began to move their materials out. The courthouse will be demolished late this winter or early next spring to make room for a larger, more accessible and secure justice center.

The project was originally slated to be ready in 2025, but the county is now eyeing early 2026 as its new completion date, according to Assistant County Administrator Jon Lanford. He said site conditions, including rock in the ground and utilities that were unknown, contributed to the extension of the timeline.

Additionally, moving the former James Breckenridge law office a few hundred feet to make room for the new building was delayed. The shift is expected to happen at the end of this year or in early 2024, Lanford said.

"We ran into some challenges with the relocation. Part of that building has a 1797 construction, then the remainder of it is the early 1800s," he said, adding later that when contractors began their work, the old bricks began to crumble.

Lanford said the brick, which was made in Botetourt, is extremely soft, so they county didn't want to take chances during the move.

"We didn't want to risk continuing to move forward, so we’ve paused that part of the project and are going back to do some modifications to the original plan," he said. "We are just taking our time and making sure we get it right, and it's a little bit more expensive than we thought."

That process will be done by specialists, likely using braces to stabilize the old building, which was formerly a hotel and most recently housed the Botetourt County History Museum. Hydraulic jacks will lift the estimated 175,000-pound structure, and a trailer will wheel it across the county's courthouse campus, according to previous reporting by The Roanoke Times.

The old law office will have heating and air once it's moved and will be open at certain times for the public to view, but there are currently no plans to put plumbing in the building or house anything in it, Lanford said.

The entirety of the project is now anticipated to cost $27 million to $30 million, up from approximately $25 million one year ago, largely because of the increased price of materials, according to Lanford.

The new, approximately 30,000-square-foot courthouse will house the circuit court clerk's office, two circuit courtrooms, and the commonwealth's attorney office, Lanford said. Prosecutors currently operate out of an office on East Main Street, on the block diagonal from the courthouse.

To prepare for continued construction on the historical block in Fincastle, the circuit court clerk's office is moving into the first floor Old District Court building, or ODC, which sits beside the current courthouse on West Main Street.

The circuit courtroom is moving down the hill into the basement of the Botetourt-Craig Counties Public Safety Facility on North Roanoke Street, home to the Botetourt County Sheriff's Office and the Botetourt-Craig Regional Jail.

Until the new county courthouse is built, Botetourt County Circuit Court matters will continue at those two locations.

Thursday was the last day court proceedings were held in the aging courthouse on West Main Street. The June meeting of the county's grand jury was scheduled then, instead of the first Monday of the month, to accommodate the move.

No circuit court hearings will be held until June 20, when matters will have transitioned into the basement of the public safety building. While the justice system didn't anticipate the delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Botetourt system is ready for this adjustment.

"Late last year, we identified that two-week period of time when the move was going to occur, and so courts had the opportunity to plan around that schedule," Lanford said. "They intentionally didn't schedule anything from June 2 to through June 19."

"I don't think it's going to have any impact on how we do our hearings or how quickly they get done," Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Gillian Deegan said. "You may not have as much room in the courtroom, if people want to come in and watch trial, but I don't think it's going to slow us down. We’ve always only had the one courtroom."

Tommy Moore, clerk of the circuit court, said he hopes the clerk's office can reopen to the public in its temporary location as soon as June 12 but no later than June 20.

Adjustments to the ODC to accommodate clerk's office staff were already under way Thursday. The plastic screen installed in the clerk's office amid the COVID-19 pandemic was removed Wednesday night and placed into its new home in the ODC on Thursday morning.

The move continued Friday, when county staff and contractors began carrying equipment to the ODC. Contractors also started deconstructing the courtroom. Some furniture from that space, including the witness stand, lawyers’ tables and some benches, will be moved into the basement of the county public safety building.

Moore, who began his work as clerk in 1992, said he's both "sad and glad" to leave the aging courthouse behind. He said "nothing has changed" in the building since his first election to the clerk position. But his office's workload has.

"The caseload has increased," Moore said, "but in the clerk's office it's way much more than that."

The office manages land records, wills and estate matters, processes passports and records court judgements and dockets. Moore said the office has seen an increase in the last 30 years in concealed carry permit issuances, for instance.

"You used to have to show ... particularized need to get one, and now pretty much anyone without a record or commitments are able to get one," Moore said. "We’ve seen that go from a few a year to one year we did close to 1,000."

The clerk assists Judge Joel Branscom during proceedings in the circuit courtroom, where Moore said security is lacking. He said the building had no metal detectors when he arrived in 1992 but they were later installed, inconveniently, inside the courtroom.

"You came into the courtroom and went through the metal detector once you got inside the courtroom, in full view of the judge and jury," Moore said.

Most recently, visitors walk through a metal detector that sat directly inside a side door, in what the clerk called a "small screening area outside of the courtroom."

Moore added that one of the holding cells for inmates pending hearings or trials is "right beside the jury room."

"When the bailiffs bring them out, they have to walk behind the prosecutor, the commonwealth's attorney, and through the courtroom to get over to defense side," the clerk said.

"It's worked, but it's also a lot of luck that it's worked," Branscom added.

Deegan said she never feels comfortable with people walking behind her.

"Things have become more violent, and there have been worse crimes," she said. "Most times, when they’re moving the inmates, I will get up and either stand with my back to the wall or just completely move out, just because I don't trust people to walk by. They’re in a bad situation, and we’re not their favorite people."

The prosecutor said an inmate on trial once jumped out a window in the jury room on the backside of the courthouse and escaped.

"They used to keep that open. It had extra restrooms, and the attorneys could go back, we could talk with defense attorneys," Deegan said. "Once that guy did that, they shut it down,"

Deegan said she prosecuted her first jury trial in the current courthouse, and so despite the security concerns, she's sorry to see it go.

"I’ve already asked if I can take this desk with me because everybody's getting new furniture. I don't want new furniture. I want my desk. This is my desk," she said, tapping the heavy piece of weathered wood in her office. "If it were up to me, nothing would change, but I know it has to."

The prosecutor said the courthouse isn't a comfortable working environment.

"Heating and air conditioning has always been an issue," Deegan said. "It's either a sauna, or a meat locker, and it's like there's no happy medium."

The courtroom has high ceilings to accommodate space for a balcony for spectators. But the loft also seems to swallow every other syllable spoken by judges, lawyers, clients and clerks alike.

"I look forward to better acoustics," Branscom said.

Several regular courthouse users also cited health concerns related to water damage.

"We have significant water intrusion in the building," Lanford said. "There's water in the building that enters in a number of different places."

Leaking water doesn't pair well with the historic documents held there. Moore said while the county's land records from 1770 onward have all been digitized, those paper documents still lived in the courthouse.

Moore stores some historically significant papers in his office, inside plastic sleeves pronged into oversized blue albums. Among them are documents signed by Patrick Henry, Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson.

"The everyday documents that staff in Tommy's office touch, they’ll come in here with him in the Old District Court building," Lanford said.

Moore said once the Breckinridge building is moved to its new location, some files will be stored there, too.

"The old, old files that are not regularly used but we still maintain as records, they have to be within 10 or 15 miles," Lanford said. "The contractor is responsible for moving them to a secure location within 10 to 15 miles that, if necessary, Tommy's staff can go and retrieve a file if they need it."

"There will be challenges," Moore said, "but it will all work out."

Staff writer Sam Wall contributed to this report.

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Emma Coleman covers public safety and courts in the Roanoke Valley. She can be reached at (540) 981-3198 or [email protected].

Botetourt County's circuit court will be closed from June 2 to June 20 to accommodate the moving of facilities and staff offices to the lower …

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