Plans for a long-awaited new Sussex County Family Court building are being reviewed by Town of Georgetown leaders following a July 28 presentation by state officials.
If approved, the project, which will require demolition of several existing downtown buildings, could begin this November. It's anticipated construction of the $105 million project will take two years.
The new court will be built a block east of the existing building on several parcels at the intersection of East Market and South Race streets. The existing court on The Circle will revert to the state and likely be used for court and Department of Justice offices.
The project not only entails a new four-level, 100,000-square-foot Family Court facility, but also a 75,000-square-foot, 300-car parking garage located along Pine and Race streets.
The plan includes more and larger courtrooms, addresses several security and privacy issues, and provides more office space and storage room for better public access to records.
Reports find security issues
A 2006 Southern Court Facilities Space Study and a 2012 U.S. Marshal's Report found Sussex Family Court was deficient in meeting modern safety and security standards due to the lack of separate paths of circulation for the public, judges and detainees.
In February 2020, about a month before the COVID-19 state of emergency was declared, Family Court Chief Judge Michael Newell and Judge Peter Jones hosted a tour of the existing Family Court on The Circle. The new court will more than triple the size of the existing court, built in 1988.
The judges pointed out cramped working spaces and courtrooms. They said handicap accessibility is limited, and there is no space to separate litigants for private discussions. The detention center is so small it does not comply with the law.
On the first floor in the lobby, just past the security checkpoint, people waiting for mediation are grouped together around tables.
Space is so limited that prison inmates move through public areas where children and their parents sometimes wait.
Security is a major issue addressed in the new design. “An inmate in an orange or white suit in shackles escorted through a public lobby is not acceptable,” Newell said.
The existing courthouse has no separate entrance or elevator for use by the Department of Correction when when inmates are escorted in and out of the building.
The elevator and hallway used by staff and judges are also used by inmates, so staff has to view a monitoring screen and stay away from the elevator when an inmate is present. Those issues will be addressed in the new design.
The current holding cell area has three rooms, rather than two rooms for male and female detainees, and two rooms for male and female juvenile detainees, which federal law requires. Newell said the law dictates that all detainees be out of sight and sound of one another.
The six courtrooms in Sussex Family Court, averaging 600 square feet, will be replaced with eight courtrooms averaging 1,400 to 1,800 square feet.
The new court will have rooms for the Attorney General's Office, Office of Defense Services, child advocates and other stakeholders.
The exterior design of the courthouse and parking garage will model other existing red-brick buildings in and around The Circle in downtown Georgetown. The design also incorporates large glass windows to provide natural lighting inside the building and to create sight lines inside and outside. Also included are courtyards, and public and green space.
Parking lots sale, lease of The Brick
Sussex County officials recently sold four parking lots along Front Street and East Pine Street to the state for $550,000 to make way for the project.
In addition, on Aug. 29, the historic Brick Hotel and the Counting House Restaurant and Pub on The Circle closed their doors after announcing a deal to lease the property to the state for Department of Justice offices. The existing Delaware Attorney General’s Office on East Market Street and Administrative Office of the Courts on Race Street will be demolished, along with the former Caruso’s restaurant and structures along Race Street.