County pursues western court site

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— Routt County commissioners are following through with three more studies requested by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The studies should help the Army Corps decide whether to give the county a permit to fill 1.4 acres of wetlands at the proposed site of a new justice center.

Last week, it was revealed that the Army Corps had given the county a preliminary denial of the permit in a late-June phone conversation. If that decision becomes final, the county could have to find another place for its proposed 52,000-square-foot, $15.5 million building.

News of the denial has fueled continuing discussions about the county commissioners' controversial decision a year ago to build the justice center at a site west of downtown, next to the county jail, and not adjacent to the historic Routt County Courthouse downtown.

For those opposed to the decision to move the justice center west, the news "validated" efforts to keep the justice center downtown, and opened a door to more conversations, said Towny Anderson, spokesman for the Friends of the Justice Center, a group that advocates keeping the courts and related offices downtown.

"If we bring everybody back to the table, we can figure this out," Anderson said.

But for county commissioners, the best site for the new justice center is the western one, and further discussions would not bring new information to light, Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said.

The county has been looking into building a new justice center for the past decade. After a bond referendum to fund construction downtown failed, the county held various public meetings and completed multiple public surveys, she said.

"We afforded everyone an opportunity to provide us with that information," Stahoviak said. "Government would come to a total halt" if officials reconsidered decisions every time someone said they wanted to look at the issue once more, she said.

"We'd never get anything done," she said.

A preliminary denial

In a late-June phone call to county staff, Tony Curtis, the Frisco Regulatory Office chief for the Sacramento District of the Army Corps of Engineers, said he told officials that based on the information submitted, the permit likely would be denied. That, Curtis said, is considered a preliminary decision to deny the permit.

On July 7, County Commissioner Dan Ellison, as well as county staff, met with Curtis, who then said that the county could complete additional studies to help the Army Corps make its final decision. The studies would help the Army Corps better compare the proposed west of downtown site with the originally proposed downtown site.

When asked why the county did not make public the Army Corps' preliminary decision, county commissioners had two responses:

First, they believed those discussions were confidential and not public information, and second, there was nothing in writing and so there was confusion that a "preliminary decision" as such had been issued.

"We truly thought that that was confidential information that we were not supposed to disclose," Stahoviak said.

"No one meant to mislead anyone," she later said. The details of phone conversations with Curtis were relayed from staff to the commissioners, who got the message that the Army Corps was "leaning toward denial," she said.

Routt County Commissioner Dan Ellison said he did not consider the news as a "preliminary denial."

Three studies requested

The studies requested by the Army Corps would provide more information on the flooding potential at the downtown site, the quantitative security benefits of building west of downtown and the parking needs at the downtown site.

The first item the Army Corps considers when making a decision is whether there is a "less environmentally damaging practicable alternative," Curtis said early last week.

"When there's a potentially less damaging alternative site, the way the law's written, we're expected to select that alternative," Curtis said.

Based on the available information, the Army Corps thought the downtown site was a practicable alternative, he said.

It is possible that the studies will change officials' minds.

The flood study should should whether building a new justice center downtown would impact flooding of Butcherknife Creek.

The security study, which must be done by a third party, should outline potential risks of having the building downtown and continuing to transporting prisoners from the county jail.

The downtown parking study is "more complex," according to an e-mail from Curtis to the county.

The county maintains that it would have to build an expensive structure -- which accounts for a big difference in cost between building downtown of west of downtown -- to provide ample parking, while the Steamboat Springs City Council recently wrote a letter saying that such a parking structure would not be required.

A parking study done by the county and city together would help determine whether such a structure is needed.

All together, those studies should cost the county about $15,000 because the City Council has agreed to pay half for half of the $11,700 parking study.

The county did not feel it should have done the parking and security studies earlier, county commissioners said. Stahoviak said previous studies showed additional parking would be necessary if the new facility were built downtown, and Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger said that it's a "no-brainer" that the downtown site would be less secure.

Continued delays to the project mean a higher final price tag, commissioners agreed.

Opposition encouraged

To those who want to keep the justice center downtown, the preliminary decision was good news. The same arguments for keeping the center downtown that were given a year ago apply today, Anderson said.

Moving the justice center will have negative impacts on Steamboat, Anderson said, including moving investment away from downtown and encouraging sprawl.

The decision to build the courthouse in downtown Steamboat Springs in 1923 was "visionary," Anderson said, and has defined the city as it is known today.

The decision to build west of downtown also will define the city in the next 80 years, but in a negative way, he said.

For one-third the cost of the three studies requested by the Army Corps, the county could hire a facilitator and sit down again with the City Council, other stakeholders and reconsider the decision, Anderson said. Whether that will happen is the question.

"I think the positions have become quite entrenched," Anderson said.

The county's argument that time is of essence because of a court order to build a new facility by September 2006 no longer holds because the order was vacated by an appeals court, he said.

The argument that the west of downtown site is better because it would cost much less than the downtown site may not hold well either, he said. Without a parking structure, the cost of the downtown site approaches that of the west of downtown site.

Anyway, Anderson said, the decision is a "100-year decision," and in the end, a few additional million dollars would be unnoticed compared to the benefits of keeping the facility downtown.

Still looking west

Despite the preliminary denial, county commissioners say they continue to look west for building the new facility.

During earlier meetings on the justice center, participants were about equally split between supporting the western and downtown sites, county commissioners have said. Their decision, they have said, represents what the majority of residents wanted.

Going west would open space in the Routt County Courthouse for core offices that residents use each day -- such as the planning department, the clerk and the assessor's office -- to expand and remain downtown, they have said.

In tight budget years, every penny counts, so the potential funds saved by going west cannot be ignored, they have said.

And although the court order has been vacated, it could be put back in place soon, commissioners have said.

All three county commissioners said they are pursuing the western site with the hope and expectation that a permit to fill wetlands will be awarded.

The Army Corps' permitting process now has gone beyond the discussion of mitigating wetlands and into a land-use issue, Stahoviak said.

Commissioners said they were dismayed because a year ago, when they first began talking with the Army Corps, they were given the impression that the wetlands fill permit would be a "slam dunk," Monger said.

Curtis responded that the Army Corps has specific guidelines to follow, and is doing just that. He also said any impression he gave the county a year ago about whether it would be possible to get a wetlands fill permit was based on preliminary information.

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