Justice center ‘drives wedge’ | SteamboatToday.com

Justice center ‘drives wedge’

City, county divided on issue

Christine Metz

Last week’s back-and-forth between the Routt County commissioners and City Council about the location of a new judicial facility raised the question of whether the courthouse will be the issue that destroys a working relationship the entities have worked diligently to build.

That relationship, strengthened in part after former City Council President Kathy Connell made improving it one of the council’s top priorities, has blossomed in recent years to include regular meetings and joint commissions on critical community issues such as affordable housing and airport management.

Now, that work could be damaged by the disagreement over the courthouse. Although some involved officials downplayed the toll the issue could take on their relationship, others spoke bluntly about the situation.

“I think it is a very positive relationship, and that relationship will continue to be positive. But the city and county, at times, each make decisions that the other may not agree on,” said Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak, adding that disagreement over the justice center would not taint their joint work on other key issues.

Councilman Ken Brenner was less optimistic. While the city and county got along well four years ago, during his previous term on the council, disagreement on a critical issue such as the justice center’s location could be damaging.

“We have some tough issues (now); that is what is different. That is when you find out if it is just pretending to get along,” he said.

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A downtown judicial facility is crucial for the economic vitality of the downtown and follows the community plan, he said. Three times in the past year, the council has asked the commissioners to consider the downtown site.

“This council is pretty divided on a lot of stuff. When you get all seven of us to agree on one thing, that is a pretty big deal,” Brenner said.

‘Driving a wedge’

While the city has aligned itself with a grass-roots group called Friends of the Justice Center Inc. on the issue of keeping the courthouse downtown, the county remains firmly behind its decision to build a new facility west of town, next to the Routt County Jail.

“We think we have made the right decision, and I believe the majority of the citizens feel we made the right decision,” Stahoviak said. The downtown site would cost taxpayers $5 million more and wouldn’t provide for further expansion or meet circulation or parking standards, she said.

To reiterate its position, the Board of County Commissioners on Monday passed a resolution stating why the proposed judicial facility site will not change.

Commissioner Doug Monger said the city would be “driving a wedge” between it and the county if it asked the Army Corps of Engineers to deny a necessary wetland mitigation permit, as the Friends of the Justice Center requested.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the council did not ask the Corps of Engineers to deny the permit, but it did agree to write a letter to the Corps stating that it thinks a downtown location was a “practicable alternative” to the commissioners’ chosen west-of-town site.

The council also voted to ask commissioners to revisit the decision not to build downtown. The next day, commissioners responded by saying that discussion already had taken place and that the decision was made.

“What is the purpose?” Monger asked. “What are we going to talk about? Unless the city says it has $4 million and is going to help. Now that is something we can talk about.”

On Thursday, City Manager Paul Hughes said the judicial facility only would drive a wedge between the two if the county chooses not to talk about the downtown location.

“If the county commissioners dispel all of the input from the city, dispel all of the studies, decide to ignore it, it would drive a wedge,” Hughes said.

Council President Paul Strong acknowledges that the city has no authority in deciding where the new judicial facility stands. Even though the county intends to take the justice center plans through the city’s planning process, local governments do not have to abide by other local governments’ land-use regulations.

The Planning Commission’s denial of the county’s plans Thursday night did not mean the county can’t build. The only entity that can stop the commissioners’ decision to build west of town is the Corps of Engineers, which can deny a necessary wetlands permit.

“We have gone as far as we can go,” Strong said. “It is up to the county to decide to go forward.”

In a letter from the council to the commissioners, Strong said the city planned to share with the county the burden of building downtown. For example, the city could look at variances to parking requirements or other development regulations.

And while Strong said Monger’s suggestion to contribute $4 million was not an option, he said the council is willing to ease the financial burden.

“We have been fair in how we dealt with it. We haven’t gone overboard or were grandstanding,” Strong said. “We certainly want to work with them.”

While the city wants to go back to the drawing board, Monger and Stahoviak say it is time to move forward.

“We’ve got a lot of problems. We’ve got a heck of a lot of them. The energy we wasted on this building is totally criminal,” Monger said. “There are other issues that we could be moving forward on.”

A done deal

In 2002, voters turned down a bond issue to build the new judicial facility downtown. After the bond failed, the commissioners formed a steering committee to determine where the facility should be built.

“We had this conversation a year ago,” Stahoviak said. “The city was very aware we had all those discussions. Not many city members participated in those discussions. Now, because it seems like they are getting pressure from their citizens, they want us to change the timeline, to revisit the issue when we already had the discussion.”

Even with a court order requiring a new judicial facility by 2006, Hughes thinks there is time to change the site location.

“It is never too late to undo a bad decision,” Hughes said. “Fifty years from now, no one will remember the courthouse took an extra six months to build.”

Most officials say it would be unfortunate if the disagreement on the judicial facility causes the city and county’s partnership to deteriorate and impacts other issues.

Hard feelings may remain

Monger said he has faith the elected county and city officials can put their differences about the judicial facility aside to deal with other important issues. But he questioned whether the rest of the county can.

Some county residents already have hard feelings over the city’s dealings with the Emerald Mountain land swap and the city’s filing for recreational water rights, Monger said.

Rural residents have opposed the city’s support of selling public, federal land in the outlying county to preserve the 6,000-acre Emerald Mountain.

Residents in the southern part of the county also have spoken out against the city filing water rights, a decision they think could impact their future water supply and have the potential to limit growth. The county has joined with other entities to form a legal defense team to oppose the water filing.

At times, county residents can feel like they are second-class citizens, Monger said.

“I think what will bring a large wedge between us is the way the county citizens feel about the city,” Monger said.

— To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com