The west parking lot of the RP Funding Center could be a permanent site for a courthouse complex to house Lakeland’s new Sixth District Court of Appeal.
The nine-member appellate court, which started hearing cases in March, is currently using a too-small leased space near Lake Mirror for offices and judges’ chambers, and holding hearings at Florida Southern College or the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando.
City Manager Shawn Sherrouse said Monday that he and other city officials were in talks with DCA officials two years ago and again last year to search for a city-owned site, which needs to be three to five acres to accommodate the building and a parking garage.
Three advantages of the RP Funding site
Pickings were slim, but Sherrouse said the parking lot between the RP Funding Center and Veterans Memorial Park, based on those parameters, would be a great location because it is large enough to accommodate their needs and be close to downtown.
“Having a courthouse there gives some protection to the park, rather than having a hotel or apartment buildings with balconies on the park,” said Sherrouse, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. The park consists of memorials to veterans of various wars and first responders, along with a walkway and trees.
“The other thing about having a courthouse there, with other development happening there around the RP Funding Center is the opportunity for a shared parking garage would likely present itself,” Sherrouse added.
Sherrouse said it’s also a good location because of plans in the works for an intermodal transportation hub on the north side of the RP Funding Center, with trains and buses utilizing the center.
However, Sherrouse noted that he is not taking a position for or against that site and that, ultimately, the decision rests with the city commission.
Sixth DCA Judge John Stargel appeared before the City Commission in late August to appeal to the city for three to five acres that could possibly be donated. Funding for a new building had been in the state budget this year, but was vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Stargel said the funding should come up again in the spring.
Making do in tight quarters, for now
An appeals courthouse requires special security, including a parking area exclusively for the nine judges on the panel. An additional 75 employees would need parking, along with lawyers and members of the public attending hearings.
The Sixth DCA currently has leased an office on Main Street, a block east of Lake Mirror, for judges’ chambers and administrative assistants and ancillary needs. But it doesn’t have space for a courtroom, so the court holds hearings in Florida Southern College’s historic library and also in the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando.
“I’m just here to present the need that we have a suitable location to build a courthouse,” Stargel said. “We don’t have any place in mind. Obviously the downtown area is where courthouses work best. We have attorneys coming to these oral arguments. They spend the night, they have dinner here, prepare for their arguments. And then we have our employees as well.”
The Florida Supreme Court recommended in November 2021 the addition of the new court of appeal.
“Subsequently, the Legislature enacted bill HB 7027, based on the Committee’s recommendation, which was then signed into law by Governor DeSantis in June 2022, creating the first new appellate court since the 1979 creation of the Fifth District Court of Appeal” in Daytona Beach, the website reads.
The Sixth DCA began operating in January and had its first hearings in March. In addition to Stargel, the judges are:
- Chief Judge Dan Traver
- Judge Mary Alice Nardella
- Judge Carrie Ann Wozniak
- Judge Keith F. White
- Judge Jared E. Smith
- Judge Joshua A. Mize
- Judge Paetra T. Brownlee
- Judge Roger K. Gannam
Stargel said they were given a directive to use leading technologies, innovation and workforce flexibility.
“We have a lot of employees who are working from home and not there every day now,” he explained. “We’re using something called hot-desking, where clerks will come in and plug in their laptop.”
Few other options downtown
City Commissioner Sarah Roberts McCarley said three to five acres in downtown Lakeland, with all of the development in recent years, is simply difficult to find and asked if he would be open to buying a building and converting it or tearing down and starting over.
“We just need to consider maybe, you know, expanding that radius outside” downtown, she said. “Of course, we want to support the DCA as much as possible, but we also want to be thoughtful about how that looks … I just want to make sure that we’re partnering together, that we’re being the most efficient with our dollars with our partnerships.”
She pointed to the Curtis Peterson Building downtown, on the north side of Munn Park, which opened in 1985 and houses several state agencies, but is not fully occupied. It has a dedicated parking garage, but it’s across Tennessee Street from the building, which is not desirable for security reasons.
“It’s almost like a ghost town,” she said.
Stargel said he and the staff like their Main Street location and being able to walk to nearby restaurants for lunch or dinner.
“But there’s just not a lot of open land. And one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you all about that process, whether it’s donated or bought, we’re going to have the legislature funding,” he said. “One of the reasons, Commissioners, that we haven’t been here, we haven’t been through authorizations, obviously. But the Supreme Court has authorized this now, this project, and we’ve just gotten off the ground. We’re ready to move forward as soon as the legislature gives us the money.”
Stargel said he expects to see funding materialize in the next six to eight months.
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