$62.3 Million Courthouse To Open Aug. 1

Judges With Seniority Getting Corner Offices With Views Of Water

Facility Is `Long Overdue'

Building Is Designed To Separate Prisoners, Judges And The Public

April 21, 1997|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County's new courthouse is still being built, but a tour of the site provides two lessons: Seniority has its benefits, and security has its price.

The five-story complex that will transform the Annapolis skyline is slated to open Aug. 1, said Robert G. Wallace, court administrator.

A walk through the unfinished brick-and-glass structure tucked behind the courthouse at Church Circle reveals that the most senior judges will be awarded the choicest office space: corner chambers with views of the water.

The plans also show that State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee will have the biggest office in a first-floor suite reserved for the prosecutors that has yet to be constructed.

The building will include a healthy dose of security measures, including card-access locks to bar the public from judges' chambers; little public parking; separate entrances for judges and defendants; and security cameras in courtrooms and holding cells linked to a basement office, where deputies will monitor activity.

Jerome W. Klasmeier, the county's director of central services, said there is no way to specify the exact cost of the security measures. But he said a central theme in the design of the $62.3 million building was the need for security. "The whole design is predicated on the prisoners not mixing with the judges or with the public, and the public not mixing with the prisoners or the judges until all three enter the courtroom," he said.

Still, at least one security measure some people would like is missing: bulletproof glass.

Theodore J. Sophocleus, administrator of the state's attorney's office, said the office asked for bulletproof windows a year ago because its space will be at street level near the sidewalks along South Street.

"I hate to be the prophet of doom and gloom, and we're not being that way, but you can't help but think about the need for that kind of thing these days," he said. "Nobody thought they were going to blow up [the federal building in] Oklahoma City, either."

Wallace said planners considered bulletproof glass but ruled it out largely because of the price. Installing it in just one set of street-level windows would have cost about $100,000, he said.

"The issue was whether the danger is really there, and can you ever get to a point where there's no risks in your life," he said. "You really can't."

Klasmeier added that what happened in Oklahoma City would not have been prevented by bulletproof glass.

"We're very security-conscious, but you just don't find many people getting shot through windows in courthouses," Klasmeier said.

Judges with the most seniority selected their chambers first, Wallace said.

Judge Martin A. Wolff, the senior judge who was appointed in 1979, took the corner chambers on the fifth floor of the courthouse that provide an expansive view of Spa Creek.

Judge Eugene M. Lerner, appointed the same day as Wolff but technically second in seniority because he was sworn in minutes later, gets the same view from the chambers directly below Wolff.

"It's going to be beautiful," Lerner said. "I'm excited."

Weathersbee was unapologetic about getting the biggest office in his suite.

"As the head of the office, people would expect that," he said. It isn't a corner office, he added, and none of the prosecutors has a waterfront view.

Real estate experts say office space the size of most judges' chambers -- each roughly 700 square feet -- would rent for about $14,000 a year in downtown Annapolis. Those with waterfront views could go for as much as $17,500.

"There's not too many water views for office space in downtown Annapolis in a Class A building like that," said Louis Hyatt, who has bought, sold and leased commercial property in Annapolis for 30 years. Class A buildings are newer properties with modern amenities and on-site parking.

The courthouse will have 10 courtrooms, three hearing rooms, a red-brick exterior and a skylight over the center of the structure.

Because of its hilly location, the front of the courthouse on Church Circle will be two stories and the rear on Cathedral Street will be five stories, four above ground and a basement with 32 parking spaces reserved for judges, their staffs and sheriff's security.

The work will be completed in three phases. When the current work is completed in the summer, courthouse personnel will move into the new structure.

Next, the county will demolish and replace a portion of the existing courthouse along South Street, a two-story addition built in 1952 that houses most of the offices and courtrooms.

The final phase will begin with restoration of the original 1824 courthouse, which faces Church Circle.

Wallace said the contractor for the first two phases, C.E.R. Inc. of Baltimore, is expected to announce a firm opening date for the new facility in the next few weeks. The entire project is slated to be completed in 1999, Wallace said.

Lerner said he "just can't wait."

He said the new courtrooms, with their paneled ceilings and carpeted floors, will be a vast improvement over his current courtroom, where rainwater often leaks into the jury box through the aging, wood-framed window panes.

"It's something that's long overdue," Lerner said.

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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