Construction on a new courthouse downtown could start as early as this fall based on plans presented April 26 to the Planning Board.

Plans for the new courthouse, which will consolidate the existing district and superior courts, depict a 2 1/2-story brick building sited on three lots on Church and Market streets. The three lots are being merged into a single, one-acre lot to accommodate the new structure.

The nearly $17 million project is one of three in the state the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage approved, and will address several deficiencies within the existing courts. Jeff Henthorn, director of court facilities, said Waldo County Superior Court has some infrastructure issues, lacks separate circulation routes for people in custody, judges, staff and the public, as well as additional security issues.

Belfast District Court, although newer, suffers from similar problems, Henthorn said and is not fully accessible. Neither building has an elevator.

Both buildings are owned by the county, Henthorn noted, and will be available for county use once the state moves out.

Henthorn pointed out the court project is being paid for through state bonds and does not involve any county or city funding.

By constructing a new courthouse, the state will be able to consolidate its operations into one building, thus negating the need for people to walk between district and superior courts as they now do. The two buildings are a relatively short distance apart but that setup is not only inconvenient, Henthorn noted, but also inefficient for court staff and the public.

Once completed, the new courthouse will feature two jury courtrooms, a non-jury courtroom, conference rooms, clerks office, disposition room, marshals office, control room and other space. The property will include 38 public parking spaces, as well as a separate gated parking area for court staff and a parking garage for judges.

The entrance to the building, sporting tall, stately columns, will face toward Market Street. Henthorn and project architect, Mark Carter, noted the orientation of the building is important because the site is smaller than what the state originally wanted and it was not possible to fit as many parking spaces on the lot as desired.

When considering potential courthouse sites, the state was looking for lots with at least 1.75 acres. However, when officials were unable to find a lot that size that was still in the downtown area, the state settled on the Church and Market street lots that, while not perfect, were still a suitable fit for the new building, Henthorn said.

Because of the limited parking, snow will be removed from the site following each storm.

Barring any delays, Henthorn anticipated the project will go out to bid in August with work to begin on the site late in September. One of the first things that will be done on the site is the demolition of some existing buildings on the lots, which could include a historic Market Street house. Currently, the state and city are working together to find a potential buyer who could move the structure off the Market Street lot.

However, if such a buyer can not be found, Henthorn said the building will be demolished. According to previously published reports, the cost to move the house in three pieces is estimated to be about $62,000. The cost could be reduced if a buyer chooses to move only the original house.

Carter, the project architect, noted the state does plan to salvage and reuse granite slabs that sit on top of the Market Street building's foundation.

During a public hearing, a neighbor on Anderson Street asked that the Planning Board pay particular attention to how the courthouse could impact parking in the area, particularly if there is spillover on days the court is especially busy. Another neighbor raised concerns about how fast vehicles currently travel through the area and requested a plan be included for slowing traffic down.

City Planner Wayne Marshall noted the speed limit in the area around the new courthouse is 25 mph and it's unlikely the state would further reduce the speed. Also, the city does not have any control over speed limits, which are set by the state.

The city planner said his office also received a written comment outlining concerns about the proposed construction schedule for the new courthouse.

While discussing the application, Planning Board members requested additional information about traffic patterns and overall flow. Additional information will be provided in the future for lighting and landscaping, Marshall said.

Board members will continue their review May 10.