Unresolved debate dominates '04

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Routt County commissioners entered 2004 with almost everything set to build a new justice center.

The county had a lot adjacent to the county jail, basic designs for the 52,000-square-foot structure, a cost estimate of $15.5 million, and plans to begin construction in the spring and move offices in by October 2005.

The building would have been halfway constructed today, County Manager Tom Sullivan said, if everything had gone according to plan.

It did not.

The year was filled with waiting and setbacks for the county -- circumstances frustrating to the county but welcomed by residents and city officials who want the new justice center to be built downtown.

Now that it looks as if the county will not receive a permit to fill wetlands at its planned site, county commissioners are considering their options.

The justice center has stayed in the news spotlight, making it the Steamboat Pilot & Today's newsmaker of the year.

The justice center's past

Efforts to build a new justice center began long before 2004.

The county has known for the past two decades that the current courthouse, which was built in 1923, was not large enough for courtrooms and other court-related offices. The county has a state mandate to provide proper court facilities, so county commissioners began looking at options.

With the public's help, they drew up plans for a $17.2 million project to construct the building downtown and purchased property near the downtown county building. But in November 2002, voters denied a proposal to fund the building with a tax increase.

That December, county commissioners got a court order to build new facilities by 2006, which they appealed immediately while also working on new plans.

After a series of public meetings, county commissioners decided in spring 2003 to build at a less expensive site west of downtown and also to fund the project through certificates of participation, which are similar to bonds but don't have to be approved by voters.

Expectations derailed

The county submitted an application for a permit to fill wetlands on its western site in fall 2003, under the impression that getting such a permit would be little more than a formality.

The public comment period on the county's wetlands permit request ended Jan. 5. The Army Corps of Engineers received about 60 comments from residents and business owners, with all but one urging the Army Corps to deny the county's request for the permit.

Also by the first of the year, a new group had formed, the Friends of the Justice Center, with the goal of keeping the new justice center downtown.

The group said that keeping the justice center downtown was important for various reasons, such as keeping business and investment downtown, and maintaining the unique character of the downtown area.

The group spoke against the wetlands permit, highlighting a component of the federal law that stipulates wetlands should only be filled when ther is no other "practicable alternative." According to that rule, if there is another feasible site that does not involve effecting wetlands, the Army Corps must deny the permit and suggest the alternative.

The Friends of the Justice Center emphasized to the Army Corps that the downtown site was such a practicable alternative.

"We were encouraging the Corps to be accountable to its guidelines and regulations," said Townsend Anderson, spokesperson for the Friends of the Justice Center.

After the public comment period ended, the Army Corps gave the county time to respond to the comments and outline why the permit should be issued when the downtown site could serve as a "practicable alternative."

Meanwhile, county commissioners pushed forward with their plans for the justice center, without a final permit in hand.

"It was a risk," Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger said. "We felt at the time that ... it was a minimal risk."

The county received advice from professionals and was confident about moving forward, Monger said.

The county then brought its plans before the city, and in April, the Steamboat Springs Planning Commission voted 4-3 to deny the justice center plans.

Planning commissioners who voted against the plan said it did not comply with the Steamboat Springs Area Community Plan, had too great an effect on wetlands and could contribute to sprawl. Those who thought the plans should be approved said the building would be compatible next to the county jail and would allow for even more security, and that the community plan only recommended that government offices stay downtown.

The same week, the City Council unanimously agreed to write a letter to the Army Corps stating a downtown justice center would be a practicable alternative to the proposed western site.

County commissioners stuck by their decision, citing various reasons: it was cheaper to build west, downtown county offices could have space to expand in the downtown campus, and security would be better as it was next to the jail.

They already had been through a lengthy decision process involving the public, and had made a decision in April 2003, they said.

They also made the point that the county was under a court order to have new facilities by 2006, and that there could be penalties if the county did not meet that deadline.

The county overruled the city Planning Commission's denial and decided not to appeal to the City Council, saying that an appeal would not be necessary as the City Council's letters suggested council members already had made up their minds on the county's application.

In early May, the City Council told the county, in a letter, that if the justice center were built downtown, a parking garage no longer would be required, bringing the cost of building downtown closer to that of building next to the jail.

On May 20, the Colorado Court of Appeals vacated the county's court order to build a justice center by Sept. 1, 2006.

For those who wanted the new justice center downtown, the decision meant a chance to look at the downtown site again. County commissioners, however, said the news didn't change much, because the need for new facilities was as important as ever and because a court order could be issued again.

The county and the state Attorney General filed petitions with the Colorado Supreme Court asking for review of different issues, but no news has been heard to date.

At the end of June, the Army Corps gave the county a preliminary denial of the permit by telephone, saying that the downtown site was a practicable alternative that would not create as much environmental effect.

The county was given another to chance to submit details about why it felt the downtown site was not practicable. In its arguments, the county focused on the security benefits of having the courts next to the jail, whether a parking garage was necessary if the center was built downtown, and how the flood plain would be effected at the downtown site.

The Army Corps read those studies then gave the county another tentative denial in December. In a Dec. 2 letter, the Army Corps said that it still considered the downtown site a practicable alternative. It gave the county 30 days to submit more information, but said that if the county chose not to, its permit would be denied.

Sullivan said that when the county submitted its application in 2003, Tony Curtis, Frisco Regulatory Office Chief for the Sacramento District of the Army Corps of Engineers, said the process to getting a permit should be smooth.

It wasn't.

Curtis said recently that he initially thought the permit could be issued quickly but changed his mind as more information came in.

The county now has several options: it can submit more information, withdraw its application or challenge the Army Corps decision when a decision is issued.

No decision has been made yet.

What it has meant

Between 1999 and 2002, Routt County spent a total of $2.2 million on moving forward on the downtown site, and between 2003 and 2004, it spent about $1.7 million on the west site. Of that total, $2.2 million was spent on purchasing land.

The delay on the west-of-downtown site has cost the county, potentially $1 million or more, because of the increased price of materials, increased interest rates and other factors, county officials said.

Looking back on the year, Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said she has no regrets.

"I can't really think of how anything could've been done differently," Stahoviak said. She said that, after the failed ballot issue, the county got public input about the size, location and other issues, and made decisions based on that.

"I continue to believe that the majority of Routt County citizens support the decisions that we made," she said.

Her and Monger's easy victories in the 2004 election are proof of their broad-based support, Monger and Ellison said.

Monger said that he was disappointed in the public process used by the Army Corps to consider the wetlands permit, and that the county continues to struggle with an unsafe court facility.

"(We're) forced into not being able to provide what we think is an adequate facility for the community," Monger said.

Routt County Commissioner Dan Ellison, who was the only commissioner who voted to build the justice center downtown in April 2003, said he quickly changed his mind when he realized the space that proper facilities required.

"Every night I consider this," Monger said about the justice center. And every night, he said, he decides that there are "all the reasons in the world" for the justice center to be at the west site and not at the downtown site.

On the other hand, Anderson, with the Friends of the Justice Center, said he hopes the county's difficulties in getting a wetlands-fill permit will encourage the county to come back to the table.

"Hopefully, the year 2005 will see the level of collaboration rising out of a very contentious situation equal to the level of collaboration that we saw with the renovation and additions to the high school," he said. "When this community wants to, it can achieve levels of collaboration and cooperation unsurpassed anywhere. Let's hope that that happens in 2005."

-- To reach Susan Cunningham, call 871-4203 or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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