Pictured Above: The town-owned Peconic Community Center, which is used by the town’s Recreation Department, for public meetings and as an emergency shelter, has land behind it that could be used for a justice court.
Members of the Southold Town Board agreed to prepare a bid proposal for a stand-alone town justice court behind the Peconic Community Center at their Jan. 18 work session, after several years of exploring a variety of options for upgrades to town buildings.
The Peconic Lane court building, which was expected to cost between $5 million and $6 million the last time the town received an estimate, would be a first step toward revamping the Southold’s assemblage of municipal buildings that need work, which include the aging wood-frame Town Hall on the Main Road and the Town Hall Annex in the former Southold Savings Bank at the corner of the Main Road and Youngs Avenue, along with the town’s outdated police station in Peconic and the senior center in Mattituck, which often has overflow parking issues.
Prior to deciding to explore the Peconic Lane Justice Court, Southold had considered a plan to build a new Town Hall on a vacant stretch of lawn behind the existing Town Hall, renovating the Annex for use as a Justice Court and then tearing down the existing Town Hall building, or renovating and keeping the existing Town Hall for use as a Justice Court and moving all other town offices to the Annex. Estimates for those plans ranged from $28 million to $37 million. Town Engineer Michael Collins said the town received an estimate of $19.5 million last year to just build a new Town Hall behind the existing Town Hall.
The Annex, which has long contained town land use offices, was purchased by the town for $3.1 million in 2018.
Mr. Collins, who brought the discussion to the work session, said renovating existing buildings is “always going to be more expensive” for the town than building new buildings, primarily because municipalities are required to pay workers prevailing wage.
“With few exceptions, renovations are always going to cost you more,” he added. “Even if not up front, in the long run it will.”
By removing the Annex and the existing Town Hall from the mix, “you’re not renovating 30,000 square feet for 10,000 square feet of use. That’s the inefficiency in this equation,” said Mr. Collins.
Town Supervisor Scott Russell was skeptical of the proposal to build a new justice court on Peconic Lane, though other board members were agreeable to the idea.
“Six million dollars for a building for a court that meets once or twice a week?” asked Mr. Russell, adding that community stakeholders in Peconic had “made it perfectly clear they don’t want government buildings piling up in their hamlet center.”
“It seems like we have, in my opinion, a really good option for the court,” said Councilwoman Sarah Nappa. “I would be in support of putting it on Peconic Lane.”
Ms. Nappa added that she would be in favor of consolidating the remaining town offices in a new Town Hall behind the existing Town Hall, and then selling the Annex building.
“I’ve been working on the court since I’ve been on the town board. It’s not an easy thing to decide. I think we just need to make a decision on it,” said Councilwoman Jill Doherty. “We have the land. Prices are only going to go up. We’re only going to grow.”
Ms. Doherty added that representatives from the New York State Office of Court Administration had already met with town staff to go over what is required in a modern court building, including that it be located near a bus stop — there is a bus stop on the Main Road at the intersection with Peconic Lane.
“It’s near the police station. Maybe this can help with the expansion of the police station,” she added.
“If you build from the ground up, at least you can get the configuration necessary,” agreed Councilwoman Louisa Evans, who also serves as the Town Justice for Fishers Island.
“For me, it’s a safety issue,” said Councilman Brian Mealy. “We don’t want to put the people keeping us safe in harm’s way. I think we should go forward…. It’s our civic duty to make sure they are safe.”
Mr. Collins said he would develop a design and bid package to put the Peconic Justice Court project out to bid, and asked board members to decide how they would finance the project.
“We have let some debt retire. We’re in good shape,” said Mr. Russell, who added that the town would likely bond for the project.
Mr. Russell suggested the town create a committee, utilizing the expertise of architects and builders in the community, to make recommendations on how to move forward with the other facilities projects, including Town Hall, and then farther down the line, the police station and the senior center.
“How do we build a new police station while maintaining the function of the law?” he asked. “It’s a Rubik’s Cube there as well. Maybe you can’t solve it all on one campus.”