Justice center sites toured

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Routt County commissioners could know in two weeks whether they can build a justice center just west of downtown.

The county has been waiting for a year and a half to learn whether it will get a permit to fill 1.4 acres at the site. Officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers visited the site this week, and they said they aimed to decide in two weeks.

In a 45-minute open meeting at 8 a.m. Wednesday, residents who want the new justice center downtown encouraged the Army Corps to deny the permit.

They argued that a justice center west of downtown would take away from business downtown, encourage sprawl and disturb wetlands.

Then the Army Corps officials met with county officials, who chose to close the discussion to the public.

The Army Corps' decision will focus on the issue of whether the downtown site, which the county considered before 2003, is a practicable, less environmentally damaging alternative.

Economics will play an important role in that decision, Andy Rosenau said at the morning meeting. Rosenau is the chief of the regulatory branch for the Sacramento District. The downtown site has an estimated cost of at least $3.5 million more than the $15.5 million price tag for the western site.

Col. Ronald Light, district engineer for the Army Corps Sacramento District, said some of the arguments for denying the permit were outside of his purview.

"Quite frankly, we're in the middle here of this county-city debate," Light said at the meeting. "Hopefully, you can resolve this apart from this permit process. I regret that you haven't been able to do that yet."

In addition to Light and Rosenau, Tony Curtis, the Frisco Regulatory Office chief for the Sacramento District, attended the Wednesday meeting with the county.

Along with closed discussion, the county gave the Army Corps officials a tour of the west site, which is adjacent to the jail, and the downtown site, across Sixth Street from the existing courthouse.

"I find it very reassuring that they seemed to be aware of the facts of the project, and I am hopeful that means we're going to get a fair decision," County Attorney John Merrill said.

Several county officials and one county commissioner, Doug Monger, attended the meeting.

Monger said he thought the meeting was productive, appropriate and worthwhile. He said he told the Army Corps officials that even if the permit is denied, the county will build the new justice center west and will not consider building it downtown.

The Army Corps preliminarily denied the county's permit last summer, and the county submitted more information. In December, Army Corps officials told the county that without more information, they would deny the permit because they thought the downtown site was a practicable alternative to the west site and did not involve filling in wetlands.

The group that urged the Army Corps to deny the permit included downtown business owners, members of Main Street Steamboat, City Council members and people involved with the Friends of the Justice Center, a group formed to lobby that the justice center be built downtown.

Townsend Anderson, spokesman for Friends of the Justice Center, said there was "no way" Routt County commissioners could conclude the downtown site is not a practicable alternative for the justice center.

County officials and residents worked for years on a proposal to build the new justice center downtown, Anderson said. The county condemned land, spent funds on plans and asked voters to approve a bond issue that would pay for a downtown building.

For the county to say the downtown site no longer is a practicable alternative means it has to discredit all of that previous work, Anderson said. To say that everything done in the past decade came to something impracticable "defies logic," he added.

"We really implore you to consider that this is all about a practicable alternative, and a practicable alternative exists, and we will work it out as a local community," he told the Army Corps officials.

In response to that argument, Monger said the county had made a mistake in trying to build the new justice center downtown and asking voters in 2002 to approve a bond issue for such a project.

"The voters were right, and the commissioners and the blue-ribbon committee were wrong," Monger said. "We made a bad choice, and we made a mistake to try to squeeze a 52,000-square-foot building in there."

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

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