BIDDEFORD — Residents who live near the site of a proposed $65 million courthouse are raising concerns about the impact the four-story, 117,000-square-foot building will have on the area.

They say the building, which will consolidate three District Courts and a Superior Court, will drastically change their neighborhood, bring more traffic to an already busy road, and exacerbate existing issues with flooding and low water pressure.

The state selected a vacant lot on Route 1 south of downtown for the project three years ago, and Biddeford officials now are reviewing plans for the courthouse. At roughly 68 feet high, it would be nearly double the maximum height of 35 feet allowed in that zone, and city officials will need to approve a contract zone in order for the project to move forward on the parcel, known locally as the Pate property.

Sterling Roop stands near the proposed site for the $65 million consolidated York County Courthouse earlier this month. Roop lives in the neighborhood behind the proposed site. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I think this is the wrong place,” said Sterling Roop, who lives adjacent to the courthouse property, on Pinewood Circle. “It doesn’t match the character of the neighborhood.”

The project is the latest step in the state’s long-term plan to consolidate and modernize courthouses. Court officials say the consolidation in York County will help avoid backlogs, improve security and provide technology needed to efficiently handle cases.

“This is a place people are coming to to conduct very serious business. We want to make sure we’re able to give them appropriate access and a good facility for dealing with the issue they need to deal with,” State Court Administrator Ted Glessner said. “We think this is a good project.”

The City Council gave its endorsement for a contract zone in September, starting the planning board review process that will continue into the new year. If the project is approved by the planning board, the council will need to give final approval to the contract zone.

Pending that approval, construction is expected to begin in the spring and the courthouse would open in summer 2022, Glessner said.

SITE SELECTED AFTER LONG PROCESS

Currently, there are four courthouses spread out across York County, with small District Courts in York, Biddeford and Springvale. The Superior Court is housed in a historic county-owned courthouse in Alfred.

The stately brick Alfred courthouse was built in 1806, expanded in the 1850s and then rebuilt in 1934 following a fire. A 2016 feasibility report found that the courthouse is overcrowded, poses security risks, has no conference room and has courtrooms that are not equipped with necessary technology.

Court officials believe consolidating all four courts in one building will speed up cases that currently take longer than in other counties because of a shortage of courtrooms. Consolidation of District and Superior Courts has already occurred in other locations across the state, including Cumberland County.

In 2015, the Legislature approved borrowing $95 million to build or renovate courthouses in York, Oxford and Knox counties as part of its long-range plan to consolidate and modernize courthouses around the state.

The process to choose the site for a new courthouse in York County was a long one. The commission charged with finding a new spot considered 28 locations across York County before whittling the list down to seven properties.

After narrowing it further, the commission considered two Biddeford locations and one in Alfred not far from the current courthouse. Ultimately, the commission chose Biddeford because it is the county’s population center, and selected the Pate property because of its visibility and accessibility from Route 1 and the Maine Turnpike.

“They wanted a place that people would know where it is,” former Sen. Linda Valentino of Saco, who sat on the selection commission, said in 2016. “People will know exactly where this courthouse is, and it will be easy to get to.”

The 28.5-acre parcel sits near the southern end of Route 1, also called Elm Street, between the busy Five Points intersection and the connector road that links Route 1 with Route 111 and the Maine Turnpike interchange.

That stretch of Elm Street is a mix of houses and businesses. A large cemetery sits just south of the courthouse property.

The city purchased the lot in 2014 for $650,000 with plans to use it to access other parcels of city-owned land. The city sold the property to the Maine Governmental Facility Authority in 2017 for $810,000, and Biddeford officials welcomed the idea of a new courthouse in the city.

“This is something that is monumental and unlike something we’ve seen before in terms of courts in York County,” Mayor Alan Casavant said after the Pate property was selected. “The entire gateway (to Biddeford) along Route 1 is going to change dramatically.”

RESIDENTS WANT FENCE, BUFFER

It is that dramatic change that is raising concerns with residents who live near the property.

Märgen Soliman, who lives and runs a business in a house on Elm Street just north of the courthouse parcel, told the planning board that the building “does not match the character of the area whatsoever.”

“This shifts in a dramatic way the character of Route 1 as we know it,” she said at a recent meeting.

Conceptual plans presented to the planning board by Finegold Alexander Architects show a four-story courthouse with a brick facade on the section of the parcel closest to Elm Street. Renderings show large stands of trees between the rear of the courthouse and neighbors and a parking lot with roughly 325 spaces at the back of the property.

The building is approximately 117,000 square feet with courtrooms and offices on the first three floors. A “mechanical penthouse” – where mechanical systems are stored – is located on the fourth story. The building will include 11 courtrooms and a mediation suite.

Glessner said earlier plans called for 12 to 15 courtrooms, but the number was cut to 11 after a closer examination of the needs of the court. A mediation suite was added because many more cases are resolved before they go to trial, he said.

The large parking lot for courthouse visitors sits closest to homes in Pinewood Circle, a quiet cul-de-sac built among granite ledges. A tall stand of pine trees separates the homes from the field where the courthouse is planned.

Roop, who bought a house on Pinewood Circle two years ago, said he and his neighbors don’t believe there will be a sufficient buffer between their homes and the courthouse. They have gone to planning board meetings to ask the project managers about light pollution, sound impacts and security.

They have asked for bigger setbacks, a privacy fence around the parking lot and a close examination of how the project will impact traffic on Route 1.

“It shouldn’t be incumbent on every neighbor in our neighborhood to pay thousands of dollars for a fence so that we don’t have people standing in a parking lot looking into our backyards,” resident Meaghan Daly told the planning board at a recent meeting. “It seems a very simple thing for the state to put fencing around the entire parking lot.”

Roop said he and many of his neighbors have been frustrated by what they feel is a lack of communication about these concerns.

Even so, Glessner said the abutters have been helpful in coming forward to identify things they see as issues.

“It’s a big project, so it changes that area. We hope it will be better, and we hope we’ll be good neighbors,” he said. “It’s natural people would wonder what is this going to mean in terms of traffic and noise. We think this is a site that will be compatible and will be a good neighbor for the folks who are abutters.”

Clair Colburn, the project manager with Finegold Alexander Architects, told the planning board that a 6-foot privacy fence between the property and the neighborhood was added, and a buffer around the property line was extended to 30 feet.

Colburn said a tree survey was being done, along with other work to finalize plans and obtain traffic and stormwater permits from the state.

The planning board has not yet taken any action but will continue the site plan approval process in 2020. City Planner Greg Tansley does not have an estimated timeline for how long that process will take.

Roop said he and others from the neighborhood will continue to review the plans and are optimistic their voices will be factored into the process.

“We care about this more than anyone else because we live there,” he said. “But we want to make sure this is done right.”

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