Steamboat Springs Tim Winter can see a state-of-the-art justice center in what is now open air.
"In between this column and that column is a courtroom," Winter said Thursday, slapping his hand against massive steel girders and shouting over the metallic noise of ongoing construction. "There's another courtroom from here to the outside wall. In between the courtrooms are holding cells and an elevator."
As Routt County's building and plant director, Winter is overseeing construction of the new, $13.4 million justice center going up on a 5-acre site adjacent to Routt County Jail, two miles west of downtown Steamboat Springs.
Construction on the site began this spring. Project completion is scheduled for September 2007, but for now, the county's new justice center is a three-story framework of steel and cement. Work on external walls and the roof is scheduled to begin in two to three weeks.
"The big push right now is to get (the building) closed in by winter," Winter said. "We're about four months into a 16-month project."
Nearly finished, however, is a feature that embodies the controversy surrounding the justice center, a building that has sparked heated public debate for several years.
Crews are building the center on a site that is primarily wetlands. While excavating a 200-foot tunnel that will be used to transport inmates from the jail to the justice center, workers tapped into a large amount of underground water. To remove water from the tunnel site, pumps have been running around the clock for months.
"We've been pumping since April," said Project Manager Rob Lawrence of FCI Constructors. "In the beginning, we probably had three pumps going."
FCI is a multi-faceted firm with offices in Longmont, Durango and Grand Junction. In January, Routt County Commissioners selected FCI to construct the justice center. Lawrence said Friday that, with the tunnel nearly completed, he and other project leaders estimated the total amount of water moved.
"I think we came up with 8.5 million gallons," Lawrence said.
An expected cost
Pumping water has come as no surprise to project planners, who say - across the board - that such a need was expected, included in cost estimates and planned for from the start of the new justice center.
"The water was not an unforeseen condition by any means," said engineer Paul Barry of Oak Creek. "We were aware of it."
"It's something that we figured on from the beginning," Lawrence said.
Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, an outspoken advocate of building the justice center next to the jail, said not expecting to hit water would have been foolish given the project's site.
"We've been pumping that water while we're pouring, digging and assembling the tunnel. The whole process was designed around knowing that there was going to be water in there," Monger said. "It's a wetland."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved construction on the site - and mitigation plans for the wetlands - in May 2005. Shortly after the approval, Steamboat resident Towny Anderson, who is now a member of the Steamboat Springs City Council, filed a lawsuit challenging the Corps' decision in U.S. District Court. A judge dismissed the suit the day after it was filed.
This week, Anderson declined to comment publicly on the justice center construction, given the stage of the project's development.
Winter and Monger said that when completed, the tunnel will not prevent the natural flow of water beneath and through the wetlands.
The tunnel is surrounded by perforated piping encased in gravel, Winter said, to allow water to flow above and beneath the waterproof, cement tunnel.
"The tunnel will be sitting in the middle of a wetland flow and alluvial area," said Monger, who is an active member of several local water regulation and conservation groups. "The Army Corps didn't want us to block that underground alluvial stream, so that stream will be captured, and moved up and around the tunnel."
Monger said county officials have hired a water attorney to file for a water right that would allow the county to use water extracted from the tunnel area. Winter said that water would be used to irrigate landscaping around the new justice center. Monger said that water also could be used to "help perpetuate irrigation of wetland areas" and to "preserve plant vigor" in the area.
The pumps were not running Thursday afternoon or evening. A hose ran out of a sewer-style manhole near the tunnel, and stretched across the wetlands. Lawrence said water removed from the tunnel site was pumped into the wetlands, "where it would have gone anyway."
Inside the tunnel, water a few inches deep spread across about 10 feet of the tunnel's lowest point.
"Within the next couple weeks, we expect to turn the pumps off for good," Barry said.
Three in one
In the narrow hallways of the Routt County Courthouse on Lincoln Avenue, defendants, plaintiffs and witnesses often pass one another, within close proximity to jury members, the public and judges.
The new facility is designed to increase safety and security by separating inmates, the public and court officials, Winter said.
"In general, the idea is to have three circulation patterns within the building," he said, explaining that the three groups will all use separate elevators and hallways.
"They all meet up in the courtrooms," Winter said.
While the need for separate corridors increased the size of the building, Winter said a benefit of the site is room for future expansion.
"There's quite a bit of additional expansion space on the garden floor," he said, referring to the building's lowest level. "We can build a whole other courtroom pod out in that (westerly) direction."
Winter said part of the Army Corps' approval includes expansion to the west of the building.
Winter said probation offices will be in the building's garden floor, county courts such as traffic court will be on the first floor, and district court will be on the second, or top, floor.
"They'll have nice views up here," Winter said Thursday on the top floor, which looks toward the Steamboat Ski Area to the east and the Yampa River to the south.
Winter said design plans for the justice center include a glass and wood front entrance and numerous environmental considerations that could include rooftop solar panels and natural lighting.
The underground tunnel from the jail - a stark, low-ceilinged, concrete walkway - is a sharp contrast to the broad views provided from the justice center's top floor.
The tunnel's future use is not lost on its builders.
"There are other ways of getting yourself into the tunnel, if you want to come back," Barry joked.
- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org