County Executive Robert R. Neall pledged yesterday to keep the Circuit Courthouse in the heart of Annapolis' historic downtown, but only if a preliminary design is approved by all groups within two months.
"My commitment to the Church Circle site necessarily is conditioned upon adherence to the enclosed project schedule," Mr. Neall wrote to Mayor Alfred Hopkins and preservation leaders.
The letter, which includes a schedule showing that a preliminary design must be completed by Jan. 7, ended months of speculation about the courthouse site and delighted city officials who believe expanding the historic building is vital to the health of the downtown economy.
"It's the preservation of a way of life," said Michael Mallinoff, city administrator.
"By maintaining an important historical use in the city of Annapolis, it will maintain a diverse economy, and it will retain a positive number of jobs."
County officials had been eyeing sites outside the downtown area because they wanted to avoid both the expense of building on the limited acreage available at Church Circle and the height restrictions of the city's Historic District ordinance.
But in a departure from tradition, representatives of the city's historic groups agreed earlier this month to lift the height limit to allow a taller building, easing the way for the downtown structure.
City and county officials still face a difficult task in designing a building acceptable to all parties.
Preliminary plans call for two 100,000-square-foot buildings spanning South and Cathedral streets to house 16 courtrooms, judge's chambers, the State's Attorney's Office and the sheriff's office.
The bell tower, which dates to 1824, would be renovated for county offices.
Preservationists hope to persuade the county to adopt a design that will fit in with the colonial downtown.
"I see it as a real preservation challenge to make sure we get a good building that will be part of the historic setting," said Ann Fligsten, president of the non-profit Historic Annapolis Foundation.
Mr. Neall's announcement came the same day a contractor began removing asbestos from the 38-year-old courthouse annex that houses the State's Attorney's Office, the Register of Wills and the Orphans Court.
A memo distributed to annex employees Tuesday said the asbestos is being removed from the attic and the basement in a manner ensuring that employees "are not exposed to any hazards."
Central Services Director Jerome S. Klasmeier said that WACO Inc., an asbestos removal firm based in White Plains, will be paid $1,952 for work at the annex, which is to be finished today.
State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said the asbestos underscores the need for a new building, which has been planned since the early 1970s.
The presence of asbestos makes it impossible to get to office files stored in the attic, he said, and attic lights have been ordered turned off because of their potential as a fire hazard.
Robert Wallace, court administrator, said yesterday that engineers are to survey the main courthouse to detect any damaged asbestos that may pose a health risk there.