2016-09-08 / Front Page

New county courthouse could be located in Biddeford

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer


This city-owned property at 511- 515 Elm St. in Biddeford is one of seven sites being considered as a possible location for a new York County Superior court. The city bought the property from Richard Pate in 2014 for $700,000 for use as a possible industrial park. The York County Superior Court Site Selection Commission is determining the best place to house a new courthouse. The Legislature allocated $65 million toward construction of a courthouse. The land is assessed at $293,500. If the site is chosen, the commission could negotiate the price with the city, or explore whether the city would transfer the land to Maine’s judicial system. (Ben Meiklejohn photo) This city-owned property at 511- 515 Elm St. in Biddeford is one of seven sites being considered as a possible location for a new York County Superior court. The city bought the property from Richard Pate in 2014 for $700,000 for use as a possible industrial park. The York County Superior Court Site Selection Commission is determining the best place to house a new courthouse. The Legislature allocated $65 million toward construction of a courthouse. The land is assessed at $293,500. If the site is chosen, the commission could negotiate the price with the city, or explore whether the city would transfer the land to Maine’s judicial system. (Ben Meiklejohn photo) YORK COUNTY – Four Biddeford sites are under consideration by the York County Superior Court Site Selection Commission as a possible future home for the court. At its Sept. 1 meeting, the commission reviewed a subcommittee’s recommendation for seven sites to be explored further, out of a total of 28 sites initially looked at.

The commission, which consists of nearly 20 members – two appointed by the governor, two by the Senate president, two by the speaker of the House, one by the York County Commission and eight by the Supreme Judicial Court – voted unanimously to narrow the field to the seven recommended sites.

Among the seven recommendations, three properties are located in Biddeford, one is on the Biddeford and Arundel town line, partially in each, and the remaining three are in Alfred, Kennebunk and Wells.

The Alfred property, at the intersection of Layman Way and Route 4, is already owned by the county and adjacent to the county jail. Philip Johnston, an architect consultant who presented the information on the sites to the commission, said the county owns 100 acres of land at the site. The commission had determined that a minimum of seven acres is needed for the future courthouse.

A parcel of 30 acres at 100 Spencer Drive in Wells, off Route 109, is available for $799,000, Johnston said. A 7-acre parcel in Kennebunk on Alewive Road, owned by Maine Turnpike Authority, could be available for purchase or transfer, he added.

At 1916 Portland Road in Arundel, 200 acres of land within both Biddeford and Arundel could be available, and divided into a smaller portion, but Johnston said there was no purchase price included with the proposal and more information is needed. A Biddeford property at the intersection of Alfred and Andrews roads, which could be sold as a parcel as small as seven acres or as large as 15 acres, is available for $1.75 million to $2.5 million depending on the acreage, Johnston said. The site is on Alfred Road, west of Target and east of Bob’s Auto Sales.

Two properties in Biddeford, directly across the street from each other at 511- 515 Elm St. and 516-522 Elm St., are owned by the city and a purchase price could be negotiated with the city, “with a possibility they might even transfer it to us (at no cost),” he added.

The city bought 511-515 Elm St. from Richard Pate in 2014 for $700,000 for use as a possible industrial park. When City Manager James Bennett was appointed however, he said he would prefer that the property be sold to a private developer instead. The property is on Elm Street, south of Five Points and north of Haley’s Metal Shop.

Sen. Linda Valentino (D-Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Buxton, Hollis and Limington), who was on the site review subcommittee, said the subcommittee considered several factors in narrowing down the field to seven sites.

“Obviously the first thing we looked at is demographics – a vast majority of people using the courthouse are coming from Biddeford and second is Sanford, with twice as many in Biddeford than Sanford,” Valentino. “Our second consideration was who owned the property. We gave a lot of consideration to properties owned by the state, county or municipality, feeling that they might want this asset in the community and we could get a much better price or it given to us.”

Valentino said the committee acknowledged Kennebunk as the population “center” of the county but also recognized that Biddeford residents contributed to more of the case load than other municipalities.

Valentino said several sites in Saco were ruled out.

“The committee felt Saco was the northern-most town in the county and that would not be the best catch-all for everyone in the community,” Valentino said. “There is also a relevant importance of the proximity to I-95. One of the things was that Route 111 is a single-lane road and coming down here, there are traffic congestions, accidents … But even though it’s a county court, many people coming down are from Cumberland County – attorneys or people who were stopped or are coming back from Massachusetts. The proximity of people who have to use the court facility is not necessarily the people working here and it’s not just people from the county, but people from outside the state of Maine and outside the county that need to come to the courthouse.”

Mary Ann Lynch, media and government counsel for the Maine Judicial Branch, said among the county’s district courts, in 2014, 1,721 civil cases were filed in Biddeford, 1,459 in Springvale and 651 in York.

“That gives you a sense of relative civil use,” Lynch said. “That’s a lot of family cases, landlord-tenant cases and small claims cases. Biddeford was the largest.”

Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Thomas Humphrey, chairman of the commission, said any site needs to be at least seven acres and should hold a building with 4,500 square feet and parking for 300 cars. The building would likely be four stories high, he added.

Wells Police Chief Jo-Ann Putnam asked if the building needed to be four stories high or could be built horizontally instead.

“My understanding is, once you go over three (stories), there’s much more money involved because of the infrastructure involved,” she said.

Johnston responded that there are three types of users of the courthouse – public, staff and prisoners in custody.

“It should only be the courtroom (where the users are together) so that the public stays away from staff and judicial and stays away from prisoners in custody,” he said. “A prisoner usually arrives (vertically), by elevator. It’s not a great design to put in a horizontal design because then the building is too long.”

Valentino said the committee also looked at the former site of Shaw’s Supermarket on Alfred Street, but “the price was exorbitant” and the structure would have needed to be torn down and rebuilt and the parking repaved.

Humphrey said the state authorized $65 million into the entire project, and “wherever you put a dollar, that’s a dollar you can’t put somewhere else. If you put it in land, you can’t put it into the building.”

Valentino cautioned against the commission determining a location solely on price.

“Just because a site is free doesn’t make it the best building site if we have to bring in water or gas,” she said. “Just because something is free doesn’t mean it’s best in the long term. We’re look at something that’s going to be there for 100 years.”

Lynch said the commission should go into executive session if they are going to discuss finances or costs of different properties. She later told the Courier that information about the properties would be posted on the court’s website, but the proposed prices for the property would be redacted.

The commission agreed to spend a day visiting the seven sites. Humphrey said the Maine Judicial Court would fund the cost of a bus to transport the commission for the sites tour, scheduled to happen Monday, Sept. 19.

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