Steamboat Springs The Routt County Justice Center has been operating since mid-September without a certificate of occupancy for the controversial $18 million building.
County officials readily admit the building lacks a certificate of occupancy - or even a temporary permit - but have downplayed the significance of using the building in a technically illegal manner.
"It's probably bending the rules," said Carl Dunham, director of the Routt County Regional Building Department.
Routt County Manager Tom Sullivan said there are two minor items holding up the process, both of which are requirements of the city of Steamboat Springs, where the Justice Center is located.
Sullivan said the county's hands were tied by the fact that Routt County courts had set a fixed date to move from the Routt County Courthouse on Lincoln Avenue to the new Justice Center on Shield Drive.
"The courts needed to move," Sullivan said.
The items holding up approval are two additional sprinklers requested by Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue and the removal of a light pole in front of the building. Despite the fire department's request, County Commissioner Doug Monger said, "Neither of these things are safety related."
Steamboat Fire Marshall Jay Muhme agreed that he is not concerned about the safety of the building and said the department would be willing to sign off on a temporary certificate of occupancy.
"It's within significant compliance," Muhme said.
City Planning Director Tom Leeson was less dismissive about the county's decision to occupy the Justice Center without proper approvals. From a "standard-operating-procedures standpoint," Leeson said, the county should have gotten their certificate of occupancy, commonly referred to as a CO.
"It certainly seems like they should have got a CO for such a major public building," Leeson said.
Sullivan said the county is actively working to fix the issues holding up the certificate of occupancy, but is at the mercy of when contractors show up to install the fire sprinklers and remove the light pole. Furthermore, Dunham said neither the city nor the Yampa Valley Electric Association wants to claim ownership of the light pole that was on the Justice Center's land before the county purchased it.
County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said the county was caught off guard by the sprinkler and light pole issues because they weren't pointed out until the last minute.
"To me, the important issue is that this had already been signed off on," she said.
Leeson, however, said that because the county decided not to go through the city's planning process - which they aren't legally required to do - there was little knowledge among city officials about what the Justice Center's plans included.
"I'm not surprised I never saw it," Leeson said. "That was their choice not to go through us."
Dunham said a certificate of occupancy is "the final document that says codes have been met." Because of a lack of enforcement, Dunham and Leeson said it is a common occurrence that people live in homes or operate businesses in Routt County before a certificate of occupancy has been issued.
"There's not a great deal of pressure from the governing bodies to go out with a hammer and enforce this," Dunham said.
Home-loan lenders, however, commonly require a certificate of occupancy before approving a loan, Dunham and Sullivan said. If there was strict enforcement, Leeson said the standard penalty would be a $999 fine for each day the building is utilized without a certificate of occupancy. The next level of punishment would be an order to cease and desist operations, Leeson said.
Operations at the Justice Center are scheduled to continue as usual while the county seeks to obtain a permit.