Permit process likely to drag

County optimistic about justice center but considering its options

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Legal recourse is one option Routt County commissioners will consider pursuing if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officially denies a county application to fill wetlands at a proposed site for a new justice center.

But the commissioners remain optimistic the Army Corps will approve their wetlands permit application, despite a Dec. 2 letter stating the permit will be denied unless additional information is provided to the Army Corps. Additional information is needed to substantiate the county's belief that a downtown site for the justice center is not a practical alternative to the west of downtown site they hope to build on, according to the letter.

On Thursday, Commissioner Doug Monger said the county will provide the Army Corps with additional information to support its position in favor of the western site. That site would require filling 1.43 acres of wetlands. Monger declined to specify when the county plans to submit that information or what the information might entail. Regardless, the county's decision to provide additional information likely will postpone, if not potentially reverse, an official permit denial that was expected to be handed down as early as Monday.

The county won't withdraw its permit application, Monger said.

"We're still hopeful we're going to get the permit," county attorney John Merrill said.

At issue is the county's desire to build a $15.5 million 52,000-square-foot justice center at a site adjacent to the Routt County Sheriff's Office west of downtown Steamboat Springs. But to build on that site, the county needs a wetlands permit from the Army Corps, a permit the county expected to receive without complications. Instead, the county has faced an increasingly difficult struggle to obtain the permit, in part because of the efforts of a group of residents who call themselves Friends of the Justice Center. Friends of the Justice Center wants the new facility to be built downtown.

The Army Corps has issued preliminary decisions declaring the downtown site to be a "practicable alternative" to the western site, because no wetlands would be affected. The county maintains that building downtown is more expensive and creates parking and security issues.

If the wetlands permit eventually is denied, the county has multiple options to consider, Monger said. One of those options is legal action.

"It would be a tool on the table," he said. "We'll look at all tools before making a decision."

The federal wetlands permit process has a built-in procedure for applicants to appeal denied permits, providing the county with another potential option. The appeals process could take six months or longer to complete and would require the county to meet appeals criteria. The appeal would be reviewed by an Army Corps official before being remanded for further evaluation or declined because of lack of merit.

"We're not throwing in the towel," Monger said. "There are other remedies that we may, at a particular point in time, choose to exercise."

He declined to specify other county options.

The county won't decide how to proceed until the Army Corps issues its final decision, whenever that might be, Merrill said.

Townsend Anderson, a member of Friends of the Justice Center, said the county's decision not to withdraw its permit application before a potential denial could have a significant effect on the value of the land at the western site.

"In essence, it's like selling some portion of the development rights on the land," Anderson said about the effect a wetlands permit denial would have on the value of the parcel.

Don Shannon, a Fort Collins-based land appraiser with 40 years of experience in his field, agreed.

"The value of the piece of land will be reduced because of the lack of utility," Shannon said. "A piece of ground's value is directly related to what can be done with it. If it's a wetlands issue, it's going to be a wetlands issue for any use (of the land)."

The county spent nearly $600,000 to acquire the land.

"What's interesting is the degree to which the county commissioners are willing to gamble with public money," Anderson said.

But the commissioners and Andy Rosenau, chief of the regulatory branch of the Army Corps' Sacramento District, question the effect a denied permit would have on the value of the land.

Monger and Rosenau said a denial is specific to a particular project, and, in the case of the proposed justice center, the denial is because an alternative exists.

"It's not a permanent encumbrance," Monger said. "It does blemish the property, of course. But it doesn't mean the whole property is worthless."

Not withdrawing the permit application also restricts the county's ability to submit future wetlands permit applications for the western site, Anderson said.

Rosenau, however, said a permit denial doesn't preclude the county from submitting future applications, even if they're similar to the original.

"The bottom line is, we will review any application that's received," Rosenau said. "Even one that's declined, an option is to do a re-application. Hopefully, something will have changed somewhere where it's going to be a different application."

County commissioners hope that the ongoing issue doesn't reach the point at which a new application is necessary. Some county officials are dismayed that the permit process has reached this point.

"The fact of the matter is, before we even bought the (western) property, we had extensive discussions with the Army Corps about the mitigation sequence," Merrill said. "We were told there wasn't going to be a problem at all. We're not prepared to give up at this point."

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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