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City okays more night, weekend work for courthouse construction

  • A Merrimack County Superior Court daily calendar is seen inside the Merrimack County courthouse in Concord.

  • Two land acquisitions approved Friday by the Merrimack County delegation (green) would provide new parking in the area of the superior court. NICK REID



Monitor staff
Thursday, August 24, 2017

The complications of tearing down an old building and putting up a new one while felony trials are taking place next door has led Concord to approve the possibility of more nighttime and weekend construction on the new Merrimack County Superior Court courthouse.

“A key concern of the court is the constitutional right to a fair trial, which provides you must have an accurate record of the proceedings. Noise and vibration are two things that can obstruct the recording machine in the courtroom,” said Steve Duprey, the Concord developer with the $15.7 million contract to build a new courthouse at 163 N. Main St.

Since demolition and construction involve plenty of noise and vibration, the possibility has arisen that daytime work may be halted more frequently than originally scheduled, meaning more work will have to be done after 4 p.m., when trials generally stop. This has led officials in Concord’s Code Administration office to grant an exception to the city’s construction noise ordinance, allowing work to continue as late as 9 p.m. on some weekdays, as well as to authorize longer Saturday work and possible Sunday construction.

“City staff has never encountered a project with such extreme restrictions,” wrote Carlos Baia, deputy city manager, in an email sent Thursday to the mayor and city council explaining the situation. “Under most circumstances, this would make retaining and managing sub-contractors nearly impossible and/or add significant costs. Nonetheless, the project manager claims they can still complete this project, but was forced to revise the initial schedule provided last month to the city. ”

It is not uncommon for trials and court proceedings to occur next to construction. For example, the Cheshire County Super Court complex in Keene, which opened December 2012, was built alongside an existing court that continued operations throughout.

Concern about the effect on legal proceedings at Merrimack County Superior Court, one of the busiest courthouses in the state, led the construction contract to include noise and vibration limits. Duprey said courtrooms will be equipped with sensors that will immediately signal the supervisor of the construction site if noise or vibration exceeds set limits.

Beyond those set limits, Duprey said, the court clerk has the ability to halt work at any time if it interferes with court proceedings. That led to concerns about scheduling work.

“Sub-contractors were leery. How do you bid a job if you don’t know you’ll be able to do it in a day? What happens if the clerk says you’re disrupting a murder hearing and you have to stop today?” Duprey said.

As those concerns mounted, the developer asked for more leeway to do nighttime and weekend work, leading to the new exceptions to the noise ordinance. Adding to the problem were delays in starting work while plans were approved by the county and state. While demolition and construction had once been planned to start by June, it will not start until Sept. 8, shortening the time until walls are up and work is enclosed from construction-delaying winter weather.

“This is a worst-case scenario,” said Duprey of a schedule sent out by Baia on Thursday. it shows exterior construction continuing through the first week of January, after which work would move entirely inside, reducing noise concerns.

Replacing the aging Merrimack County Superior Court has been controversial for years. Last year, the Legislature earmarked $16.6 million to build a new courthouse near the state office complex on Hazen Drive, but a push by county and city officials to keep the building downtown, which allowed the price to be lowered by $800,000, changed their minds.

Duprey said the contract was fixed-price, meaning that even if more night work is needed the price to the county and state will not increase.

The new courthouse will stand immediately next to the existing one, and the administrative building could be demolished for parking, with the existing courthouse renovated into offices. The county recently bought two plots of land on Pitman Street and Chapel Street to add more parking near the new courthouse.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)