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Planning panel OKs courthouse expansion


The $55.6 million expansion of the Anne Arundel County Circuit Courthouse in downtown Annapolis is a step closer to reality after the city's planning commission unanimously approved the project last night.

No one from the community spoke against the proposal, and commission members said the 274,000-square-foot expansion is long overdue.

"I hope we will see a new courthouse sooner than later," said Richard Hillman, a commission member and former mayor. "The county deserves a lot of credit for sticking with us."

Officials had talked about building a new courthouse for more than 20 years. For many years, however, they considered a downtown expansion impossible because of historic district restrictions.

But last year the county resurrected the plan for a downtown courthouse. The project cleared its biggest hurdle in January when the historic district commission approved the plan, although the county must still return to the commission with more details on landscaping, lighting, signs and renovations of the existing courthouse.

Preservationists had argued that the expansion was too large for the downtown's narrow streets. The commission, however, voted to waive height and mass restrictions and approve the project rather than risk losing the courthouse altogether.

"We need to keep our institutions downtown," said Eileen Fogarty, city planning director. "It's absolutely critical."

The county must now go to the City Council for final approval of the project.

If the council grants its approval this month, the county may begin asbestos removal in August and demolition of the courthouse annex building in September or October. The actual construction of the new building probably will not begin until the end of the year.

"It might be a Christmas present if we're lucky," said Jerome Klasmeier, the county's director of central services.

Work will progress in phases, with completion scheduled for 1998.

In other action, the commission approved an application from W.M. Enterprises, owner of the Ram's Head Tavern, to build a micro-brewery next to its bar on West Street.

The owners testified that they expect to brew about 3,000 barrels of beer a year. The beer would be sold to Ram's Head patrons and to wholesale distributors.

Some beer would also be sold in take-home bottles.

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