County gets 'no' on justice center site

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— The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has issued a preliminary decision denying Routt County's application for a permit to fill wetlands at the site of the new justice center.

If that decision stands, county commissioners could be forced to find another site for the 52,000-square-foot, $15.5 million building.

That's welcome news to those who oppose the county's decision to move the site west of Steamboat Springs. Opponents have cited the need to keep business and investment downtown and discourage urban sprawl. Many wrote letters to the Army Corps, urging the agency to reject the county's wetlands permit.

Commissioners said the preliminary decision simply is another delay that will drive the cost of the project higher.

Last week and again early Monday, county commissioners said that a preliminary decision had not been issued. However, later on Monday, they acknowledged that they had been informed that the preliminary decision was for denial.

The preliminary decision was given during a phone call at the end of June, said Tony Curtis, Frisco regulatory office chief for the Sacramento District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger said it was ludicrous for the Army Corps to consider denying the permit. "The bottom line is, this thing has gotten out of the wetlands issues," Monger said.

During the June phone call, Curtis told the commissioners that based on the information that had been submitted, the Army Corps felt that building the new center at a site downtown would cause less environmental damage. Building at the five-acre site west of downtown would require that the county fill 1.4 acres of wetlands.

Regulations guiding the Army Corps are "black and white" about issues relating to a practical alternative building site, Curtis said. If there is a building site in which the purposes and needs of an applicant are met but that does not affect wetlands, the Army Corps must deny the permit and suggest building on that alternative site. In the case of the justice center, that alternative is the downtown site across Sixth Street from where the current courthouse is located.

Curtis said that when he talked with county representatives at the end of June, he gave the county a chance to schedule a meeting if it wanted to discuss the preliminary decision at greater length. The county agreed and met with Curtis on July 7, he said.

At that meeting, Curtis told the county that the Army Corps would consider information from three additional studies before making a final decision. They include a report on the floodplain at the downtown site, the security benefits that would result from building the justice center west of downtown next to the jail and the need for a parking garage if the new center were to be built downtown.

Townsend Anderson, a spokesperson for the Friends of the Justice Center, which was formed to encourage the county to build the new center downtown, applauded the Army Corps' preliminary decision. In the big picture, he said, there's a "huge irony" with the situation. If the county commissioners reconsidered the downtown site more thoroughly after a bond referendum to pay for the construction of the new building first failed, the county would be at least "10 months" into construction, Anderson said.

Curtis emphasized that the Army Corps' decision is preliminary, and said a final decision will not be made until information from the county's three new studies is submitted. The Army Corps has assured the county that a decision will come quickly.

If that decision is a denial, the county will think through its next options, which could include a lawsuit, said Routt County Manager Tom Sullivan.

Monger said the county "absolutely" is still hopeful that the wetlands fill permit will be approved.

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