Routt County commissioners' handling of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' initial ruling on a wetlands permit for the new justice center demonstrates that the issue is being guided more by political emotion rather than pragmatic policy.
Last week, it was revealed that the corps had issued a preliminary decision denying the county's application for a permit to fill wetlands at the site of the new justice center west of town next to the Routt County Jail. Without the permit, the new justice center can't be built at the site.
This decision came down at the end of June, when county commissioners met with Tony Curtis, Frisco regulatory office chief for the Sacramento District of the corps. Disturbingly, commissioners have kept the decision from the public for a month and likely would have kept the secret for several more weeks had Curtis not interrupted their plans by revealing the decision when asked by a reporter.
The commissioners' lack of openness about the Corps' preliminary ruling underscores our sense that the justice center fight has become a battle of political wills in which winning the battle has become more important than doing the right thing.
A primary factor in the corps' decision was the existence of another location -- the downtown site -- that the county has not adequately ruled out as a plausible alternative. Curtis told commissioners that the corps' rules are pretty black and white; If there is a building site in which the purposes and needs of an applicant are met but that do not affect wetlands, the corps must deny the permit and suggest building on that alternative site.
Of course this is the same argument the so-called "Friends of the Justice Center," proponents of the downtown site, made in dozens of letters to the corps, much to the county's chagrin.
But last week, commissioners made it very clear that, no matter what the corps ultimately decides, the downtown site would not be placed back on the table. Commissioner Doug Monger said the county would first "look for more property west of Steamboat."
Monger also called the corps' preliminary decision "ludicrous."
It is important to remember the corps' decision is preliminary. The county can prevail with the west of Steamboat location if it can prove to the corps that the downtown location is not a practical alternative. The corps has asked for three studies including 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.
Such studies may well justify the county's decision. Monger said he thinks they will, that the corps eventually will rule in the county's favor. And if the corps doesn't rule in the county's favor, County Manager Tom Sullivan suggested the county then would sue the corps.
Those comments suggest county officials are willing to delay construction of -- and spend millions more on -- a justice center west of Steamboat before ever reconsidering a downtown site that all three commissioners once considered the best place to build the facility. If they keep digging in their heels, commissioners may find themselves in a hole they can't get out of.