New courthouse not tops on county's list

But need for one appears significant

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— How to pay for improvements at the courthouse won't come before voters until at least 2001, but there are probably plenty of courthouse workers who think yesterday wouldn't be soon enough.

The courthouse needs more courtrooms, more waiting areas and separate hallways for security to get it through the next 15 years, according to a report issued by the Routt County Court Facilities Review Committee.

The group voted unanimously last week to recommend that the Board of County Commissioners accept a list of needed improvements. County Commissioner Dan Ellison said a bond issue to pay for the new building won't go to voters for at least a year, possibly even two, depending on how the facilities review report proceeds.

The timing of an election issue may also depend on other capital improvement projects the county has identified, such as an improved terminal at Yampa Valley Regional Airport and the Routt County Jail.

The Board of County Commissioners has not prioritized the three projects, but Ellison said the jail is definitely third on his list. He said if the terminal redesign could be done with outside funding, he would support it moving forward because any long-term borrowing for a new courthouse would require an election.

The proposed courthouse building, which would be two or three stories tall and between 36,000 to 42,000 square feet, was estimated to cost $6.2 million in 1996. Officials said that estimate has not been updated to reflect what land acquisition and construction will cost in 2001 or 2002.

What is the need?

The county created the facilities review committee seven years ago at the request of the Routt County Bar Association and the Routt County Combined Courts. In 1994, the committee reported to the Board of County Commissioners that Routt County needed a new courthouse, identifying a lack of courtrooms, lack of space for jury assembly, "cramped and inefficient" space for offices and files and inadequate waiting areas for witnesses.

Court administrator Evan Herman said the court clerk's office is extremely overcrowded.

"Two District Court judges share one office. If they have two cases scheduled simultaneously, one might get booted out of the office," Herman said.

The courthouse, built in 1923, has two small rooms that serve at different times as jury deliberation rooms, attorney-client meeting rooms, hearing rooms and witness waiting areas. Meanwhile, customers wait for the clerk in a stairwell.

"I worry about people falling down that. It has to remain open as a fire escape, but it's a bad situation," Herman said.

The courthouse has no public waiting areas.

"The same hallway has prospective jurors, law enforcement, defendants, litigants, attorneys, witnesses, family of victims and family of defendants ," Herman said. "When you have families of victims and families of defendants waiting in the same hall that's got to be really uncomfortable, just a terrible mix."

The courthouse also lacks a secure holding area for inmates brought from the county jail.

"They are brought up the same hallway as everyone else. If someone wanted to break someone free they couldn't ask for a better opportunity," Herman said. "In modern facilities, they never intersect with the public."

The report states that "cramped hallways" need to be replaced with sufficient space for separate circulation routes for the public, criminal defendants and judges.

"A modern court facility has three circulation patterns," Herman said. "That way jurors are never walking through the same hallway as witnesses or families of defendants."

Another route for inmates would include a secure sally port entrance to an elevator used only for inmates. That elevator would lead to a secure holding area connected to the courtroom.

Hayden resident Sheila Woodley served on a jury in April. She was at the courthouse from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. for four days and said the jury box was cramped, but the deliberating room was sufficient.

Woodley said she believes that as Routt County grows, it needs a court building that can grow with it.

"They need a better facility so that jurors don't have to come through the same hallway as witnesses. They definitely need a safer facility," Woodley said. "We need a building that accommodates the judges' needs."

Filings in District Court have increased steadily from 710 cased in fiscal year 1995 to 832 cases in 1999. In County Court, the filings have fluctuated from 3,739 cases in fiscal year 1995 to 4,483 in 1996, dropping to 3,630 in 1999.

"We tried to make it work, but these are serious problems and we just can't continue to operate this way," Herman said.

The proposed judicial center would have a module for each judge, including a courtroom designed for a 14-person jury, judge's chambers, a jury deliberation room, a secure holding area for jail inmates, a witness waiting room and a room for attorneys to meet privately with clients.

A long process

In 1994, the facilities review committee recommended the county start planning for what it suggested be called the new Routt County Justice Center as soon as possible. That year, the county hired The SGS Group, a firm specializing in court planning across the country. The SGS Group submitted its final report to the county in 1996, focusing on developing the Good News Building lot, which has been empty since an explosion destroyed the building in 1994.

In the last four years, the county has delayed acting on the report for several reasons.

County Attorney John Merrill said the owner of the Good News lot demanded substantially more than the appraised value of the property and "insisted upon terms which would not allow the county to complete the city's development permit process before being required to place itself at financial risk."

The SGS report focused on developing the Good News Building site because city officials indicated the county could close the section of Fifth Street between the current courthouse and the proposed expansion site. While the county was still in negotiations with the Good News lot owner, the city notified the county that it would not support that road vacation. The county then began looking at alternative sites, such as land near the sheriff's office and jail on the west side of Steamboat.

About that time, the city adopted the Mountain Town Sub-area Plan which recommends keeping city and county government functions downtown.

In March of 1999, Routt County identified four lots across Sixth Street from the courthouse as the site of the proposed court facility expansion. The county owns one lot and has made arrangements to buy another from the Visiting Nurse Association when that group relocates to the medical office building on the Yampa Valley Medical Center campus. The county is in the process of acquiring the other two lots by eminent domain. The condemnation hearing in that process is scheduled for Oct. 10 in District Court.

What's next?

The court facilities review committee has passed its recommendation to the Board of County Commissioners to approve the 1996 report with a 2000 supplement that updates many items. The next step in the report's progress is to get approval from the board. A date has not yet been set for that consideration.

The review committee agreed at its last meeting that its members will need political help in getting a large bond issue passed. The committee realizes that many residents are concerned about what another large building will do to the neighborhood. The building is proposed to be two or three stories, but no taller than the existing courthouse.

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