Wetland permit in process

West-of-town justice center opponents say permit only 1 problem

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Nothing catches the eye at the propsed site of the county's new justice center adjacent to the county jail.

The 5-acre parcel looks like a grassy field that blooms yellow and purple in the spring, with some taller vegetation at the corners.

But much of the area is wetlands, a habitat considered valuable because it cleans water and recharges water supplies, reduces flood risks and provides a home for wildlife.

The county will have to fill in about 1.4 acres of the parcel's wetlands to build the $15 million, court-ordered justice center, which requires a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The application process to secure a permit began last fall and has attracted opposition from residents and groups who see preventing a permit as a way to keep court facilities downtown. Almost all of the 60 public comment letters the Army Corps received by January urged that the permit be denied.

Those against the west-of-downtown site say the need to fill wetlands is only one problem with the site. Building a justice center there also will take away from

downtown Steamboat's economy, contribute to sprawl and place an important symbol of democracy in an out-of-the-way spot, they say.

At this point, the Army Corps' decision is the only one the county cannot override, as it did the city planning process. A decision from the Army Corps is expected at the end of this month.

"Our job is to protect the biological, chemical and physical integrity of the nation's water, " said Tony Curtis, Frisco Regulatory Office Chief for the Army Corps of Engineers. "The public have entrusted us with that, so we don't take the decision lightly."

The wetland permit

The Army Corps regulates all dredge and fill activities in U.S. waters through a process that involves public comment, responses from the applicant and a decision document, Curtis said. The Army Corps uses the process to determine where significant impacts exist and whether a permit should be issued. The decision document that it issues is final, but can be appealed by the applicants, Curtis said.

The Army Corps' duty to choose the "least environmentally damaging, practicable alternative" is important to this case, Curtis said. Those opposed to the county's west-of-downtown site raise the question of whether to keep the courts at their current downtown site is such a "practicable alternative."

One part of answering that is to consider cost; the downtown site is estimated to cost $3.5 million to $4.5 million more than the western site.

Another consideration is the quality of the wetland in question. Curtis said he would not call the wetland "high quality" because of surrounding development and because it is not particularly diverse. Filling the wetland in question does not impact an entire system, and additional wetlands could be developed on another part of the property, he said.

However, it is one of a few similar historic wetlands left in the area, he said.

The Army Corps also considers all public comment. But how heavily those comments are weighed depends on what they say, Curtis said. In many cases, most comments are from people and groups that just don't want something to happen.

"Those comments, we listen to them, and they are taken into consideration, but our decision is still based on the Clean Water Act, which is the aquatic habitat," Curtis said.

"Folks that don't want development just because it's not where they want it, that's left to the local planning agencies and the local government," he said.

In the case of the justice center, many people who want it to remain downtown are using the Army Corps process to "try to stop a project," turning the Army Corps' into the "last and final decision," Curtis said.

He said he thought that if another building were proposed for the site, there would not be nearly as much opposition. The amount of opposition to the permit surprised Curtis, especially because the proposed project is a public building that should have public benefit.

Those in opposition

Towny Anderson, organizer of the Friends of the Justice Center Inc., has been one of the most vocal opponents of the west-of-downtown site.

The county has a court order to build the new facility by Sept. 1, 2006, and after a bond question to fund the structure failed in 2002, the county decided a year ago to build the structure west of downtown and use certificates of participation to fund it.

The decision to use the certificates, which don't have to be approved by voters, was sudden and surprising, Anderson said.

The next opportunity for public comment came with the wetland fill permit application, he said.

"It was the only avenue left to us," he said.

The Friends of the Justice Center and others have taken out advertisements, talked with government officials, and urged the Army Corps to recognize the downtown site as a "practicable alternative (that) stands on its own merit."

The decision to move west will take business and investment away from downtown, encourage sprawl and have other negative effects, he said. With the center's $15 million cost, it likely will be the biggest investment made in the area for a while, Anderson said.

Plus, it means wetlands, of which there are not acres and acres left in town, have to be filled.

"We have a government agency which is setting the example of it's OK to fill a wetland," Anderson said. "Wetlands are critical resources to our health and welfare, and here we are cavalierly filling a wetland when we have a viable alternative."

The county's response

County commissioners have said for the past few months that they feel they gave the public ample time to comment on where and how to build the new justice center, but that it is now time to move on.

"We need to get on with the justice center," County Commissioner Dan Ellison said.

Since last fall, the county has spent about $1.5 million on the new site, purchasing the land and paying for architectural services.

Also, the justice center is proposed to be more than 50,000 square feet, a size that simply would not be compatible with the downtown neighborhood, County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said.

By rejecting the bond issue, voters told the county "loud and clear" that saving money was key, Stahoviak said.

Those concerned about the location now "should have been more involved a year ago," Stahoviak said. Most of those who participated in the public process last year ended up thanking the commissioners for the process and the chance to give input, she said.

If the Army Corps does not grant the permit, the county will look carefully at why the permit was denied, and then go from there, Stahoviak said. If the permit is granted, the county could break ground this summer.

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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