County to condemn land for new courthouse

EVERETT — Snohomish County pressed ahead Wednesday with plans to build a new downtown courthouse despite cost concerns and pleas from property owners who stand to be displaced.

The County Council voted 4-1 to condemn a half-dozen parcels where parts of the new courthouse would be built. That means the county can pursue eminent domain through the courts if the parties can’t agree on a sale price.

Councilman Ken Klein cast the lone dissenting vote. While they disagreed with him, colleagues said they face no easy choices.

“I was elected to make tough decisions and I think that this is a tough one for me, emotionally and otherwise,” Councilman Brian Sullivan said. “But I’m going to support the motion and I’m going to hopefully be proud of a building that will be here 100 years from now.”

The proposed $162 million justice center would mostly occupy a county-owned parking lot that sits about a block east and across Wall Street from the existing courthouse. The county paid about $1.5 million for the lot in the 1990s, intending to use it as a future courthouse location.

Following Wednesday’s vote, six businesses bordering the county lot would be subject to eminent domain: three law offices, a legal messenger service, a bail bonds business and a small, private parking lot. The parcels front Rockefeller Avenue and Wall Street.

Owners from all three law practices attended the hearing to put the county on notice that they’re digging in for a fight.

Attorney Royce Ferguson, who has owned his law building for about two decades, said the property owners options at this point are to “cave in or get sued.”

“I’m not caving in,” Ferguson said. “I don’t want to leave. That’s really what it is.”

The county also is looking into buying slivers of two other properties on the block, Deputy County Executive Mark Ericks said.

The council on Wednesday increased to $350,000 the amount it’s prepared to pay an outside law firm to handle the condemnations. The county has contracted Pacific Law Group of Seattle for the work.

The existing 1967-vintage courthouse faces a slew of problems. To name a few: worries about earthquake readiness, asbestos throughout the building, and difficulties separating the general public or court officials from criminal defendants.

County leaders have been trying to renovate or replace the old digs since at least 2008.

In late 2012, after convening a study group, the County Council voted to raise property taxes to take out $75 million in bonds for a complete remodel. That plan also included a new three-story wing.

In early 2013, County Council members decided instead to build from scratch, believing that it would cost about the same as renovation. They also reasoned that even a remodel couldn’t fix all of the current building’s problems.

They soon realized that the new building would far exceed their budget.

Last year, County Executive John Lovick tasked Ericks, his second in command, with undertaking a thorough review of the project. Based on options Ericks and his staff presented, the council decided to build on the county parking lot across the street.

The option cost about $30 million more than building on a plaza just feet away from the existing courthouse, but was thought to offer a safer and more usable space. It also meant losing an underground prisoner-transport tunnel to the jail.

The county passed over the plaza location partly because it didn’t provide enough separation from the street.

The latest plans across the street, however, appear to put the future building’s footprint right up to the sidewalk, said Melissa Sullivan, who co-owns one of the buildings in line for condemnation. Sullivan, who is no relation to the councilman with the same last name, questioned the wisdom of approving a design that appears to keep on growing in size and price.

“If you don’t know what the plan is, how can you vote yes?” she asked.

Klein has advocated dusting off the $75 million remodeling plan. The councilman cites the financial difficulties that have emerged since the county approved the courthouse plans last year. They include the millions of dollars the county has spent responding to the March 22 Oso mudslide and the need to bulk up staffing at the jail.

“This is a new fiscal reality and things are much different now from how they were when the council adopted its current plan,” Klein said.

Most of Klein’s fellow council members argue that a remodel couldn’t be accomplished for $75 million and that they originally acted on bad information.

If construction plans advance on schedule, work on the new courthouse would begin early next year and finish by the fall of 2017. The county plans to demolish the old building once the new one is ready, but also may consider other uses, Ericks said. The historic Mission building would remain.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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