Brian Wadding

Brian Wadding, a designer with Arris Studio, checks on work being done in the inmate holding area at the temporary headquarters of the Howard County Circuit Court. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / July 28, 2011)

When he first heard that the Howard County Circuit Court was moving into temporary headquarters while the 170-year old courthouse in Ellicott City was being refurbished, Maj. George Voll scoured the Internet looking for similar relocations.

He couldn't find any.

"Most counties just get new courthouses," said Voll, who has worked for the county sheriff's department for 25 years.

When the renovation was first approved two years ago, there was a brief discussion about whether the courthouse could be renovated at night, on weekends or while court was in session, or whether another suitable locale would have to be found.

The purchase by the county this year of the AscendOne building in Columbia, where other county offices had been relocated and some, including the Board of Education, remain, made a temporary move a more viable option. Now comes the hard part: moving in by the Tuesday after Labor Day.

That remains the goal, as makeshift courtrooms are being constructed where County Council meetings were once held, and judges, clerks and other administrators pack up their files for what is expected to be an 18-month stay.

The county has gone through other large-scale moves in recent years, but this is different because several agencies are shifting from various locations. In addition, prisoners will now be taken to a building where county offices and a private company are located. AscendOne, a debt management company, occupies half of the second floor of the two-story building.

"Moving a courthouse is not like moving an office," said Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, who was recently appointed as the county's interim chief administrative judge. "It's not a simple procedure at all. Do you know what it's like to pack up 22 years' worth of stuff? But we're going to have to make it work."

The biggest issue is security, said Voll, who is overseeing the move for the Sheriff's Department. It means that the lobby of the AscendOne building has to be reconfigured to include a metal detector, and that judges' chambers will have to lead directly into the courtrooms.

"That's my biggest concern, but we've been assured that they'll have adequate security," said Howard County State's Attorney Dario J. Broccolino.

Once the temporary courthouse is up and running, logistical issues will remain. There are eight courtrooms in the current courthouse, but there will only be four courtrooms of similar size and two smaller ones in the temporary facility.

"I think it's going to be a challenge because of the space," said Broccolino. "A lot of the work areas are going to be out in the open."

James Irvin, who as the county's director of public works is in charge of the $8.58 million court house renovation project and the construction of the temporary courthouse space, compared the construction in the temporary facility to putting a "big puzzle" together.

The first major overhaul of the historic courthouse since 1986 will include installation of a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, an upgrade to technology used in the courtrooms, rewiring the building to meet current county code and a new elevator to improve handicap access. The renovation will also include the expansion of the juror waiting area.

don.markus@baltsun.com.

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