County weighs options for new justice center

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— When Routt County contracted out for its very first courthouse back in 1877, it spent $100 on a little log cabin with a dirt floor and sod roof.

As the county looks to add a new courthouse in the 21st century, that $100 might buy a few pieces of lumber for framing; nowadays a facility will cost close to $17 million.

Steamboat Springs Centennial Hall Tuesday, May 22; 7 p.m. Oak Creek Community Center Wednesday, May 23; 7 p.m. Hayden Town Hall Wednesday, May 30; 7 p.m.

Taxpayers will have the chance to see firsthand four architectural drawings that show where a new "justice facility" may be located in downtown Steamboat Springs.

Community leaders and officials have already expressed a favorite in public meetings, but now it's up to the residents to determine which design they like.

The drawings will be shown at several community meetings being held this week as Routt County officials begin their quest to convince residents that a new court facility is badly needed. Routt County residents will be asked to vote on a bond issue in November 2002 that would fund the estimated $17 million project.

The architect leading the design team warned that although a site on Sixth Street across from the current annex building has received favorable comments, nothing is close to final.

"We certainly don't want the public to think anyone made up their mind yet," said Russell Sedmak, vice president of HLM Design. "That would circumvent the whole process of getting public input."

The Routt County Commissioners have made it a priority to keep the public involved for the next year as they look for suggestions and ideas about design, location and architecture.

However, the commissioners could have circumvented a taxpayer vote on a bond issue and found other ways to finance the building. But in the end, commissioners said a bond issue would cost the county and taxpayers less money and keep the county better off financially.

No matter what, the state could eventually force the county to build a new justice facility because of security and safety risks at the downtown courthouse.

Nobody knows those risks better than court administrator Evan Herman.

"You couldn't design a worse circulation pattern for a court if you tried," Herman told county commissioners and City Council members last week.

With only one way in and one way out, attorneys, judges, prisoners, witnesses, victims and jurors can be seen mingling in the single hallway that provides access to the two courtrooms. There are no attorney/client conference rooms and sometimes a third judge has to hold court in a small jury room or find a place elsewhere in town.

"We've rented just about every conference room in town," Herman said. "We even did jury selection once in the theater on the mountain."

District Judge Richard Doucette has been in the middle of this chaos for 20 years and has expressed disgust at even having to "beg" for money when he believes people's lives are in danger.

"It strikes me this is a very risky place to carry on your courts anymore, especially in a society that is becoming as violent as we are," Doucette said.

"It really is a bad facility and we're going to have some bad things happen if we don't do something soon."

It got so bad last month, sheriff's deputies were on the verge of taking their prisoners back out of the courthouse when they couldn't clear the hallway of about 40 people who were stacked wall to wall.

The problems are not the fault of the people who originally built the now historical stone courthouse in 1923.

In its day, the courthouse was state of the art and went above and beyond what the locals could maybe afford then. But design changes over the years to accommodate more and more people and cases, as well as security measures, have brought it to its end, Doucette said.

"It seems to me a building this dysfunctional doesn't instill any respect at all," said Doucette, who complained of "outrageous" clothing being worn in the courtroom as well as people wearing hats in the jury box.

County Attorney John Merrill agreed that a dignified building instills dignified actions.

"If you see these large federal courtrooms in Denver or other big cities, there's a type of majesty built into them," Merrill said. "You're awed by it. People are quiet and respectful."

Herman and the HLM architects said they're not looking to build a "Taj Mahal," but something that would complement the historical courthouse as well as the historical homes around the neighborhood.

City Councilwoman Arianthe Stettner agreed with Judge Doucette and Merrill that what a building looks like determines people's attitudes as she quoted Winston Churchill: "We first shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us," she said.

To reach Frances Hohl call 871-4208

or e-mail fhohl@steamboatpilot.com

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