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Habersham progresses in plans for courthouse
Design team approved layout of new building
This is an artist’s rendering of the 65,000-square-foot judicial center planned for Habersham County. The Board of Commissioners budgeted $13.3 million to construct the building and renovate the current courthouse, which will be funded through special purpose local option sales tax dollars.

The Habersham County Board of Commissioners is moving closer to beginning construction on its planned Judicial Center.

The county's Design Committee recently approved the design of the 65,000-square-foot courthouse and released its artists' renderings.

Commissioners expect the building to be built on the site of the old North Habersham High School on between Llewellyn and Washington streets.

"We are now in the process of trying to get variances from the city of Clarkesville," Commission Chairman Sonny James said.

The commission budgeted $13.3 million to construct the building and renovate the current courthouse, which will be funded through special purpose local option sales tax dollars.

But that figure is not set in stone until all plans are finalized, James said.

"It may be a little bit higher and we may not be able to renovate as much in the old courthouse as we would like to," he said.

Because the judicial center is considered a tier 1 project, construction on the building must be completed before other projects can begin.

James is optimistic but cautious the process will be completed by January or February and construction could begin soon afterward. If all goes according to plan, James expects construction to be completed by 2013 or early 2014.

"Of course, you never know what's going to pop up," he said.

The plans call for a three-story courthouse with the option to expand to a fourth floor. It is expected to house the majority of the county's court-related functions, including superior, state and probate courts, clerk of court's office and courthouse security.

"It will be a one-stop for judicial," James said.

Initially the building will include approximately 20 percent of unused space to allow judicial operations to expand as needed. That includes a fourth floor to will be used in the future.

"We don't want to have to move into a courthouse and people think that it's too small to begin with and we have no room to expand. It's cheaper to go ahead and build that top floor now while we're in construction than it would be to come back later," James said.

Habersham's current three-story courthouse has only one courtroom, which officials say creates difficulties coordinating the various levels of court. The planned judicial center will include additional courtrooms to allow for more functions at one time.

The county plans to continue using the old facility and complete renovations once the move to the new judicial center is complete. The county's remaining administrative departments will then move into the building rather than be housed in separate facilities, James said.

County officials were attempting to obtain a 2.25-acre tract of land adjacent to the proposed site on Washington Street. The land is held by the board of education and commissioners were working to swap a piece of land, but those talks have stalled.

"That process is dead in the water right now. We're no longer in the process of negotiating for that piece of property," County Manager Janeann Allison said.

Officials were hoping to obtain the tract of land to allow for better access to the judicial center and possibly include a courtyard, similar to the Hall County Courthouse. But the school board wasn't interested in any properties the county could offer in return, Allison said.

"There was an issue with the fact that we didn't really have a lot to offer on our end of things. There's several reason why it stalled, but that's mainly why," she said. "At this point, we're just not sure that's the direction we need to go with."

Regardless of whether those talks resume, the county will continue moving forward with its plans for the new facility.

"Everybody is working as closely together as possible to try to get this competed for the citizens," James said.

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