PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — The signs will be coming down, at least for now.
Late Thursday afternoon, Portsmouth City Circuit Court Judge Johnny E. Morrison ruled a 60-day stay, halting legal proceedings in the case, meaning the buildings of the civic center, which include the city jail, can remain in use for the time being.
“The city knew the city jail had problems for decades,” Morrison said. “People need to come together and communicate.”
Portsmouth’s sheriff had requested a judge step in after City Manager Lydia Pettis-Patton deemed the jail “uninhabitable” Wednesday afternoon and had the building official put up bright orange “condemned” signs over all the doors.
The condemnation notice reads in part: “…this property is a serious threat to health, life and safety of the occupants/public … this building/dwelling is to remain vacant until occupancy has been approved by the inspector…”
The official determination to condemn the buildings had come earlier from City Building Official Doug Smith, who was not present for Thursday’s hearing. Neither was Pettis-Patton nor City Attorney Solomon Ashby.
Attorney Jon Babineau made the case for Sheriff Michael Moore to keep the jail open. He cited three engineering reports the city obtained in April and May. “There’s no mention of actual or immediate danger, or danger of collapse in these reports,” Babineau told the court.
Attorney Bob Merhige argued for the City of Portsmouth, claiming that the sheriff did not have standing to bring the case to court because the city owns the buildings.
Moore testified that he was not notified until late Wednesday afternoon that the jail was being condemned. “Did anybody call you?” Morrison asked incredulously. “No,” Moore replied.
City Engineer James White said the jail building is unsafe, and warned that its old-style standpipe fire suppression system has not been tested recently and could fail when needed most.
White also ticked off several ongoing mechanical and maintenance issues – including plumbing, sewage, and a pump that connects to the fire suppression system. Each time, Morrison interrupted with the same question of why the city hasn’t previously addressed the problem, with White responding he didn’t know why.
Fire Chief J.R. Arnold said the 1960s era building is old, and that the standpipe fire suppression isn’t made anymore and would be difficult and expensive to replace. But Arnold says his department has done special training since 2016 and has a plan to fight a fire if one happened.
Murmurs spread throughout the third-floor courtroom when Police Chief Angela Green testified for the city. Greene says Pettis-Patton told her despite the posted condemnation notices, it would be “okay for people to go in and out” even though the signs say that would violate the law.
Morrison mentioned that exchange when he ruled to stay the matter, and make a final ruling September 25.
In the backdrop of the controversy is the city’s discussions with developer Armada Hoffler, based at Town Center in Virginia Beach. The real estate company is interested in replacing at least some of the buildings in the waterfront government complex with luxury apartments.
Babineau said in his closing argument that the city manager has an ulterior motive for trying to condemn the jail – to move prisoners to the Hampton Roads Regional Jail near Victory Boulevard, about five miles away.
When asked about that earlier this week, Pettis-Patton denied any connection to talks with the developer and insisted the condemnation was in the interest of safety.
“We are pleased, and we are hoping to move forward with a plan with the city to build a new jail,” said Portsmouth Sheriff Michael Moore following the hearing.
Pettis-Patton first told city council Tuesday night of the determination that the buildings were far past their life cycle. Studies had recently been completed evaluating the structural integrity, environmental safety and mechanical components of the property that sits in the 700 block of Crawford Street.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story incorrectly spelled the name of attorney Jon Banineau. WAVY-TV regrets the error.