County answers city on justice center

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County commissioners are "extremely disappointed" about a letter authored by the Steamboat Springs City Council. The letter, sent by the council to the Army Corps of Engineers, could impact the county's ability to secure a wetlands permit for construction of a justice center west of downtown.

In a letter signed and sent to the council Friday, Routt County commissioners questioned the council's claim in its letter to the Corps of Engineers that building the justice center downtown is a "practicable alternative" to disturbing 1.4 acres of wetlands on the west of town site. The Corps of Engineers is considering the county's application to fill the wetlands.

According to the commissioners' letter to the council, City Council members did not give the county a "real plan" for solving financial and practical problems related to the downtown site.

The county's plans for the $15 million justice center adjacent to the county jail have fueled continuing controversy among residents and officials who say it is important for the courts to stay downtown.

On April 6, the City Council voted 7-0 to write its letter.

On April 8, the City Planning Commission voted to deny the project, and the next week, county commissioners decided to overrule the city's decision.

Although the county does not need the city's approval to proceed with construction, it does need a permit from the Corps of Engineers to fill wetlands at the west of downtown site.

In their Friday letter, county commissioners wrote that the existing court facility is unsafe and so the county has a moral responsibility to make a change as soon as possible. Any delay could result in "dangerous and undesirable work conditions," the letter stated.

The county also has a court order to complete the justice center by Sept. 1, 2006, and is hesitant to take any course of action that would further delay construction, according to the letter.

The letter then questioned how long -- and what process -- it would take to develop a new plan to build downtown; how the city would address parking requirements downtown; and how a 52,000-square-foot facility could comply with the historical character of Oak Street and the Community Development Code.

It also asked how the county can be sure to have room for county office expansion if the justice center is built downtown and how much money the city would offer to defray additional costs of developing downtown.

"Unless and until we are satisfied that the completion of the new justice center will not be delayed and that the costs to the county will not increase from our current budget, we must continue to pursue our current course of action," the letter stated.

The justice center could be one topic of conversation at a joint city-county meeting scheduled for Tuesday.

The county is continuing conversations with the Corps of Engineers and supplying more information as requested, Routt County Attorney John Merrill said.

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