Bursting at the seams Agencies have outgrown 150-year-old courthouse, in spite of expansion.

October 07, 1997

SOONER OR LATER, Howard County must begin thinking about solving the cramped conditions for court agencies at its Circuit Court building. The mid-19th century gray stone structure that sits on a plateau in Ellicott City has served the county well for more than 150 years. But it was designed when the area's population was 17 times smaller, and before Howard became a separate jurisidiction.

Architects who designed the grand 1843 building made some allowances for growth, but not nearly enough. When the courthouse rose, the area had perhaps 13,000 residents. Howard's evolution into suburbia has pushed an avalanche of cases, lawyers and employees into the building.

Howard County's recent growth has spurred expansion of the clerk's office, sheriff's department, state's attorney's office and register of wills office. The rapid increase in population has prompted the creation of more judicial positions to handle the rising number of civil and criminal cases. At present, the court-related activities are the equivalent of a large family living together in an efficiency apartment.

An expansion in 1986 doubled the size of the courthouse, and yet that wasn't nearly enough. Because of its constrained, hilly site, the building cannot expand any more, either outward or upward. Some spaces now must serve dual purposes -- a mailroom that doubles for wedding ceremonies is one vivid example.

Howard is not the only jurisdiction pressed for space. Baltimore City's circuit courtrooms and agencies are a sprawling arrangement that sometimes forces lawyers, employees and confused parties to run across Calvert Street from one building to another.

In the short run, at least one appendage of Howard's legal system will have to move to free up room. Space will be too tight to house all the functions that exist there. The state's attorney's office or most sheriff's department functions seem the most likely candidates.

Booting one agency from the courthouse, however, is not a long-term solution. It is becoming clear that although the grand old building should remain a part of the county's architecture, it will not be suitable as a courthouse for the 21st century. Howard must begin studying the feasibility of a new building.

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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