Tuesday, September 14, 2004
Two hundred years ago, George Washington said, "public buildings in size, form and elegance must look beyond the present day." This view was shared by the community leaders who built the 1923 Routt County Courthouse.
There has been a lot of focus on the cost of the new court facility; there has been virtually no discussion about its value to our community. It is the local representation of our "nation of laws" under which Americans agree to live. It creates an identity and a sense of place. It reinforces our sense of belonging. It is an icon of our democratic way of life. Court facilities are the distinguishing trademark of every county seat in every state in this country. They are physical and functioning manifestations of public access to government -- government of the people, by the people, for the people.
When we put these buildings and their functions in out-of-the-way locations, they become a little bit less accessible, a little bit less symbolic, and yes, even a little bit less democratic. Out of sight and out of mind -- the antithesis of our fundamental premise of open government. Our community loses a little more of the value that historically shaped its proud Western identity, once compromised, never recovered. In the wake of unprecedented world turmoil, never have we faced a more appropriate time to place our public, democratic institution front and center.
Until the last half of the 20th century -- a period dominated by sprawling development (cost versus value) -- courthouses have always occupied prominent settings. These settings were chosen for the sense of permanence, dignity and importance they project.
Recently, Warren County, Va., rehabilitated its historic courthouse and "built a beautiful, architecturally compatible addition to it."
Ed McMahon, land use planner and attorney, wrote in the Planning Commissioners Journal, "Keeping the courthouse downtown did cost more, but Warren County officials realized that there is a big difference between cost and value. Downtown is the heart and soul of the community and the cornerstone of civic identity. A public commitment to staying downtown also encourages private businesses to do the same."
McMahon went on to say: "By rehabilitating and expanding its existing facilities, the county helped to stabilize Front Royal's downtown, increase the value of nearby properties and uses, and ensure that existing infrastructure would be used more efficiently. On the other hand, if the county had moved its offices out of downtown, private businesses would have followed. Keeping the courthouse in the core helped both the town and the county." Does this description strike a familiar chord?
It is this same ethic of stewardship that garnered the city of Steamboat Springs a Preserve America Award last January. And this is why the county commissioners' intractable position is so puzzling. Routt County is known far and wide for its progressive policies regarding agricultural and open lands conservation. It is recognized as a national leader, admired by local elected officials throughout Colorado and beyond. The commissioners were leaders, much like the commissioners of Warren County.
Defaulting to cost flies in the face of a decade of wise land use planning decisions and policy-making that have added immeasurable value. Destroying a wetland, disinvesting in the downtown. These actions compromise the county's ability to say no to any developer coming before them looking for a permit to fill yet another wetland or to advance the long-discredited notion of low density, sprawling development. Let's not let the next decade of community building be driven by those who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
Yes, it is much harder to build downtown. But the effort is worth it, always has been, always will be. It takes collaboration, negotiation, understanding and cooperation -- something that was clearly evident in the 1995 Steamboat Springs Area Community Plan, but has been woefully missing in the past 22 months.
Townsend H. Anderson