County not inclined to change justice center locale

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Routt County commissioners are moving ahead with plans to build a new justice center west of downtown Steamboat Springs despite pleas from City Council members and downtown business owners to reconsider.

Commissioners said their commitment to the site next to the Routt County Jail has not wavered, even though recent developments eliminated a deadline to build the facility and lowered the cost of building downtown.

Those developments include the Colorado Court of Appeals' decision to vacate Judge Richard Doucette's 2002 order instructing the county to build a new facility by Sept. 1, 2006, and the Steamboat Springs City Council's offer to eliminate a parking garage as a requirement for building downtown.

"At some point ... you've either got to fish or cut bait," Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said. "I believe that we did everything in our power to involve the public after the election to determine the direction we were going to head."

City Councilwoman Nancy Kramer, who supports a downtown site, is hopeful council members will get the chance to discuss the location again with commissioners.

"If we don't do it now, I think it's a huge loss," Kramer said. "We're not doing the right thing for either one of our constituencies. You can agree to disagree, but you still need to talk with each other."

Turning to the west

Commissioners have been thinking about building a new justice center for the past two decades. The current courthouse, which dates back to 1923, is not considered adequate or safe.

In 2002, commissioners asked voters for a tax increase to pay for a $17.2 million justice center and parking garage downtown. The voters said no.

In December, Doucette issued his order instructing the county to build new facilities by 2006. Routt County immediately appealed the order, not because they opposed the need but because they opposed the lack of process, officials have said.

After multiple public meetings, commissioners decided to build west of downtown because it would cost less. They also voted to fund the project through certificates of participation, which are similar to bonds but do not have to be approved by voters.

Before the bond issue failed, commissioners put $2.2 million into the downtown site, with $1.5 million going to land and almost $600,000 going to architectural fees.

When they decided to go west, they bought land for about $590,000, and to date have spent almost $700,000 on architecture and engineering fees, with costs for that site now totaling $1.3 million.

As currently proposed, the 52,500-square-foot building could cost more than $15 million.

The judicial process

Now that the Court of Appeals has vacated Doucette's order, both sides have two weeks to petition for a rehearing, and then another 30 days to ask that the case be heard by the Colorado Supreme Court, District Judge Michael O'Hara said.

The ruling could change, but if it stands, O'Hara's interpretation is that he would present the case to Colorado's chief justice and let her make a decision about how to proceed, O'Hara said. If she gives the go-ahead, he could issue an order similar to Doucette's, with the same time-frame, he said.

Kramer said the Steamboat Springs Main Street Project has helped convince her that the center should be built downtown. The project underscored for Kramer the importance of keeping governmental institutions downtown, while also giving her ideas about how to deal with parking problems the facility might create.

Kramer said she thinks the city and county have made mistakes, and that the groups should at least sit down and talk.

Tom Ptach, a downtown business owner who is president of the board of directors for the Main Street Project, said the delayed court order creates an open door to re-examine the location issue.

"The county has been resting its head on the fact that they've got this deadline, and 'we're up against the walls and we've got to do it,'" Ptach said. "Well that's no longer the case."

Arguments that the west site would cost less may not hold up, as the county has spent more to date on the downtown site and would not be required to build a parking garage for the downtown site, Ptach said.

Ptach said it would be "very disappointing" if commissioners chose not to revisit the issue in light of the new developments.

"Not all decisions are right out of the gate," he said.

Being responsible

Commissioners said they have done due diligence on the justice center location. They argued that the west of downtown Steamboat site is less expensive, and that building a center downtown without a parking garage would be "irresponsible."

Building downtown without a parking garage is not an option Stahoviak would consider, she said.

The west site allows easy prisoner transport from the jail and provides room for a detox center, Stahoviak said. It also has a larger lot with space for a simple rectangular building, more parking and easier construction.

And, if the center were built downtown, it would look out of place and would "dwarf" all other nearby buildings, Stahoviak said.

And while the west site means the county has to fill in about 1.4 acres of wetlands, for which it is awaiting a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the downtown site would mean changes to Butcherknife Creek that could result in flooding of nearby properties at times.

Stahoviak and Monger said the ins and outs of the issue have been discussed in depth and that there is no reason to revisit the location.

Stahoviak said she would not support a public election on the location, calling it a matter commissioners were elected to decide.

Those who want to discuss the issue more are too late, Stahoviak said.

"We had the public meetings in 2003, and I really wish they would have been there," she said. "I'm sorry, you can only talk about stuff for so long and then you take action."

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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