2016-11-10 / Front Page

Courthouse deal yet to be determined

By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD/ALFRED – Finer details still need to be worked out between the city of Biddeford and the state after the decision to locate the new York County courthouse on Route 1 in Biddeford.

The York County Courthouse Site Selection Commission voted at its final meeting Friday, Nov. 4, to locate the courthouse at the Pate property at 515 Elm St. in Biddeford. The next step in the process is to negotiate details of the land transaction, said Biddeford Economic Development Director Daniel Stevenson.

The negotiation between city staff and the judicial branch will determine a purchase and sale agreement, which must be presented to the city council for ultimate approval. That process will happen over coming weeks, and, if approved, the transfer process could happen over the course of a year or more.

The Nov. 4 vote followed two hours of discussion by commission members. Three votes were taken at the meeting: The first vote was whether to site the courthouse in Biddeford, as opposed to Alfred. That vote passed with 12 members for and six against. Commissioners who voted against the Biddeford site were York County Commissioner Gary Sinden, York County District Attorney Kathryn Slattery, Attorney Ken Marass, state Rep. Robert Foley, state Sen. Ron Collins and York County Sherriff William King. The second vote was whether to site the courthouse at the Pate property, as opposed to the 60 Barra Rd. property, also in Biddeford. That vote passed unanimously. A third vote, also unanimous, resolved that the commission would recommend the Maine Judicial Branch work with the York County District Attorney’s Office to provide office space in the new courthouse for the district attorney at low cost. The purchase price of the Pate property, which the city of Biddeford owns, is listed on the commission’s information materials as $650,000.

“Contrary to rumor, the city is not giving the Pate property to the state,” wrote Mayor Alan Casavant in a statement on his Facebook page. “We were very clear that we need to be made whole.”

The great majority of discussion through the meeting focused on accessibility to the court by county residents, court staff and attorneys.

“I went to our legal department and asked them what they thought,” said Sherry Edwards, assistant director of Caring Unlimited, a domestic violence victim advocacy service in York County, who was appointed to the committee by the Supreme Judicial Court. “They were concerned that if we chose Alfred, access for people in Biddeford and Saco would be greatly diminished.”

Edwards said that she believed that, for the rest of the county, transportation to Biddeford would be less likely to be an issue.

“People living in outlying areas already have transportation,” Edwards said. “They need a car just to get to the store.”

Sinden warned that what may be called “outlying areas” could change.

“Once you’ve committed to Biddeford, you’ve established how access is going to be granted to the citizens, and that’s a permanent decision,” Sinden said. “Sanford is making remarkable gains, particularly in the areas to attract business.”

It was Sen. Linda Valentino (D-Saco) who suggested that the vote to locate the courthouse be separated into two votes.

“I would hope that when we take the vote we don’t end up with a three-way split,” Valentino said. “The vote and the conversation right now should be between Alfred or Biddeford.”

As the Courier reported in its Sept. 8 issue, the initial pool of prospective sites was 28, and before it was narrowed to three sites, there were four others: Spencer Drive in Wells, Alewive Road in Kennebunk, Portland Road in Arundel, and Andrews Road in Biddeford.

The Hon. Wayne Douglas, York County Superior Court justice, said that in almost every county in Maine the superior court is located in the county’s largest city, which in York County, is Biddeford. He also argued that traffic safety favors Biddeford.

“(Route 111) is not known as one of the safest roads in the county,” Douglas said. “If we consolidated the four courthouses in (Alfred), we would be putting a lot of people on that road.”

Slattery favored siting the courthouse in Alfred, for the reason that the District Attorney’s Office could do its job most efficiently if it was co-located with York County courts.

“All other county services are in Alfred also,” Slattery added. “We have probate, (registry of) deeds, civil process.”

Probate court, registry of deeds and civil process are all part of county government and are not part of the state judicial branch’s move, according to Mary Ann Lynch, government and media counsel at the judicial branch’s administrative office of the courts – they will remain in Alfred.

The Hon. Thomas Humphrey, associate justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and commission chairman, reiterated why consolidating the court locations was important.

“It doesn’t serve either the citizens or the cause of justice well at all to scatter the courthouses all over the place,” Humphrey said. “The attorneys are faced with the daily juggling match of having to be in Biddeford or York, or Sanford, or in Alfred, all at 8:30, all on the same day. The whole day is taken up with phone calls between the attorneys and the clerk’s office.”

Humphrey said that co-located district courts also increases efficiency in that judges can easily substitute in for one another.

Humphrey voiced support for the Biddeford site because Biddeford is “the center of gravity” for court business in the county.

After the initial vote favored Biddeford, the discussion turned to whether to choose the Pate property or the Barra Road property. During the course of the meeting, the focus on that discussion was on visibility and safety.

“The Barra Road property is tucked away,” said Hon. Jeffrey Moskowitz, a district court judge. “I don’t think it will be felt like it’s really part of the community.”

“Barra Road is one way in and out,” Moskowitz continued. “If that road becomes inaccessible for some reason, people at the courthouse would have no way to get out, whereas the (Pate property) is on one of our busiest roads.”

“I am scared to death of one way in and one way out,” said Attorney Amy Fairfield. “That is a very congested area.”

A few other commissioners shared the concern of lack of exit from the Barra Road property. There was talk of the possibility of developing a connection to nearby Pomerleau Street, but the idea did not ultimately receive much consideration.

The third vote of the commission was intended to address the problems that would be created by separating the District Attorney’s Office from the courts.

“A letter coming from this committee would recognize the fact, in writing, that we understand that there may be a problem in the York County budget because of the transportation costs and the District Attorney’s Office, and to work collaboratively together,” said Valentino, who made the motion.

The decision has stirred both praise and criticism from Biddeford officials and community leaders.

“Hosting the courthouse will result in more needed police protection for the surrounding neighborhoods,” wrote Howard Hanson, on behalf of watchdog group Concerned Citizens of Biddeford, in an email to the Courier. “It will require road improvements and infrastructure updates in that area. The state may fund some of the initial work but the city will be charged with maintaining them. The courthouse is state property and therefore tax exempt. It will be another ‘service’ added to a community that already has more than its share in nonprofits and government tax exempt service property.”

“While the loss of property taxes is accurate, critics forget about the potential for other development, associated with the court system,” Casavant wrote on Facebook. “Because this is a county consolidated project (and the only county court), it would be extremely desirable, for example, for law firms to have offices in the seat of the county courts.”

According to the city’s website, the assessed value of the property is $462,500.

“There is zero evidence that this will create an economic boom or have anything but minimal economic effects for the city,” Hanson wrote. “Alfred is hardly a bustling place and the courthouse has been located there for generations.”

“There are some vacant parcels (on the Elm street corridor),” Stevenson told the Courier, “and there are also some other pieces of property over there that make a lot of sense how this would drive growth that would be complimentary to the judicial system in that area of town. Anything from title companies to law offices, restaurants, coffee shops. A lot of people will be traveling there.”

In a separate matter, Stevenson confirmed that Biddeford city officials recently toured the Biddeford District Court building, which will be vacated. When asked whether transfer of the district court property was being discussed as part of the Pate property transaction, Stevenson answered that it was not.

The commission was composed of 18 voting members and one non-voting member, State Court Administrator James Glessner. The voting members not previously named in the story are Maine Department of Finance and Administration Deputy Commissioner of Operations David Lavaway, Thomas Dunham, of the Dunham Group, State Representative Anne-Marie Mastraccio, Biddeford and Springvale District Court Clerk Kathy Jones, Attorney John Webb and Wells Police Chief Jo-Ann Putnam.

Contact Staff Writer Anthony Aloisio at news@inthecourier.com.

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