MORRIS COUNTY — The Morris County Board of County Commissioners authorized moving forward Monday, November 21, on the schematic design phase for a new courthouse slated for a county-owned parcel on Schuyler Place in Morristown after reviewing a revised, preliminary concept during a public meeting.
The vote followed a PowerPoint presentation to the full board and the public by Roger Lichtman and Lisa Tsang of the Clifton-based infrastructure firm, AECOM, which was originally contracted for the project in November 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic paused action on what had evolved after 2018 into a 140,000-square-foot design proposal in 2020. After some review and a restart on the courthouse plan this past July, a 116,998-square-foot, less costly proposal emerged and was shared by the Board of Commissioner’s Courthouse Committee.
“It’s important to point out that we are not approving the courthouse or building the courthouse at this time. The objective this afternoon is to answer questions and get a consensus from the Board to permit AECOM to move from concept design to a schematic design phase,” said Commissioner Stephen Shaw, Chairman of the Courthouse Committee.
“This is the first time the full balance of the Commissioner board and the public is seeing this recommendation. As we move through design, we will engage representatives of the Judiciary, Sheriff’s and Prosecutor’s Office, and representatives from Morristown.”
Sheriff James Gannon, Morris County Prosecutor Robert Carroll, and Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz attended the meeting to speak on the need for the new courthouse as well as thank the Courthouse Committee and AECOM for working closely with them in developing different conceptual designs over the past couple of years.
Commissioner Deborah Smith, another Courthouse Committee member, noted that a county-owned pocket park on the corner of Schuyler Place and Washington Street, which would have been completely covered by some prior conceptual designs, is now mostly preserved in the new conceptual design.
“I’m very pleased with the results of the redesign. It preserves a good portion of the park, which is very important. The county created that park by removing an old building many years ago, and it is heavily used by people. I think it adds to the appeal of the entire proposal,” Commissioner Smith said.
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty attended the meeting, expressing an interest in preserving the park.
The overall scope of the project has narrowed, as has the overall cost when calculating inflation – a point noted by Commissioner Douglas Cabana, who also is on the Committee.
“We needed to develop and evaluate alternatives to the 2020 plan, something that addressed post-pandemic realities, reduced costs, balanced the need for staff with the public well-being, and, ultimately, still provide adequately expanded court facilities that meet the needs of the state judiciary in Morristown, which is the county’s responsibility,” said Commissioner Cabana.
The new conceptual design unveiled last night includes eight courtrooms, but a reduction of 23,000 square feet from the 2020 proposal. The new design also adds a 200-person jury assembly room and eliminates prior proposals for relocating some county and court departments into the new facility.
Providing adequate court facilities and securing those facilities are the sole responsibility of each respective county in New Jersey. To assess those needs, the county commissioned a Space Needs and Facilities Assessment in 2017.
That assessment, completed in 2018, identified a significant shortfall in criminal, family and civil court facilities, and detailed the outdated conditions in the existing courthouse complex, which includes the historic courthouse along Washington Street that was originally constructed in 1827.
That building was augmented three times before 1900, according to Judge Minkowitz, noting other portions were added in the 1950s and 1970s. The complex, situated along Washington Street between Court Street and Western Avenue, will be preserved but is not suitable to continue most court operations.
The County Commissioners, then known as Freeholders, held public hearings prior to their unanimous vote to adopt two capital ordinances in late 2018 to fund the design phases of a new courthouse along Schuyler Place. Balancing the needs of the court system with the financial concerns of county taxpayers has continued throughout the process and involved the county government administration, Commissions, members of the judiciary, and the Sheriff’s Office.