County hopes to move forward with justice center soon

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With a necessary wetlands permit at long last in hand, Routt County leaders have their eyes firmly fixed on starting construction of a new justice center west of downtown.

But although they look ahead to breaking ground, the actions they took to get to this point have others questioning their suitability to govern.

As of Friday, the county was waiting for a final signature from the Army Corps of Engineers for its permit to fill 1.4 acres of wetlands, but approval of the permit was expected.

Kevin Bennett, a former City Council president and member of the Friends of the Justice Center, a group opposing the county's decision to move court facilities out of downtown Steamboat Springs, said his group likely will meet soon to discuss its next steps in relation to the justice center location. But now, his bigger concern is the county commissioners' policies and attitudes, which he said were evidenced by their treatment of the justice center issue.

"There certainly is a great deal of concern in the community about the behavior of the county commissioners on a lot of levels -- the secrecy, the obstina(cy) and the notion that people participating in the public process are somehow saboteurs or terrorists," Bennett said.

His comments referred to some of the commissioners' actions in recent months, which included trying to withhold some information related to the justice center wetlands permit, and to recent comments made by Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger in reference to the Friends of the Justice Center, for which Monger apologized.

Monger, in particular, has come under fire for his behavior during the process and his recent use of the word "terrorists" in reference to the Friends of the Justice Center. In anonymous comments sent to the Pilot & Today's Sound Off page, some residents have defended the actions of Monger and his fellow commissioners heartily, and a few have gone so far as to demand his resignation.

Defending county officials' attempt to withhold information regarding the justice center proceedings, Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said they had reason to do so because they were in the middle of negotiations.

Stahoviak said the county held multiple public meetings before making the decision in April 2003 to build near the Routt County Jail instead of downtown. Throughout that process, she offered to meet with various groups who had concerns, she said.

At public meetings leading to that decision, people clearly were split about where the best site for the new justice center was, she said. During those meetings, the county heard arguments for building the justice center downtown -- the same arguments that have been raised again and again since the decision to locate the center west of downtown.

"We have to move ahead and know what we're doing is right and will come to a good conclusion in the end," Stahoviak said. "We made the decision in 2003, and we got input in 2003 about everything they are saying right now."

To build the justice center at the western site, the county will fill 1.4 acres of wetlands but will mitigate that by enhancing or creating about 4 acres of wetlands. To do so, the county must purchase a conservation easement for wetlands on 2.59 acres of property next to the justice center site.

Before construction can begin, the county must have a conceptual mitigation and monitoring plan for the site approved by the Army Corps, County Manager Tom Sullivan said.

That plan should be finished by early next week, Sullivan said. It then will go to the Army Corps. When it is approved, site work can begin.

The county has a contractor lined up to do excavation work at the site, Sullivan said, but has to find out whether its project manager still is available.

Last year, the county made a preliminary list of qualified contractors so that it could request bids for the project as soon as everything was in place.

Initial estimates of the project's cost were $15 million. Those estimates now are more than a year old. The county will have a better idea of what the project will cost when bids are received, said Tim Winter, Routt County purchasing and property manager.

Because the costs of steel and construction have increased in the past year, it's likely that the project could be more expensive than originally expected.

Stahoviak said she was happy with the Army Corps' ultimate decision. Her biggest concern with the Army Corps process, which also involved two preliminary denials, was that it seemed some of Curtis' original comments were more related to land-use issues.

In response to concerns that building the new justice center by the jail could draw business from downtown, she said that the county commissioners are committed to keeping county offices in the historic downtown courthouse campus well into the future, and that that commitment would serve the downtown area well.

"I think it's going to be the best answer," Stahoviak said. "I have believed that since April of 2003, when we made that decision."

Stahoviak said the county is ready to move on.

"It will be nice to get this one moved off our plates," Stahoviak said. "At least moved to the sides of our plates."

But whether the Friends of the Justice Center are ready to concede defeat and be "moved off the plate" remains to be seen. Townsend Anderson, spokesman for the group, was out of town last week and could not be reached for comment.

When Anderson returns, Bennett said, there likely will be a meeting to determine the group's next steps.

Because only the applicant can appeal a permit, litigation would be the Friends' main option for contesting the permit.

Tony Curtis, Frisco Reg-ulatory Office chief for the Army Corps, said that in such cases, the opposition typically requests an injunction to stop any activity on the permit before the issue could be heard in court.

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