State court officials have decided that it would be best to build the new, $33 million Inyo County Courthouse in Bishop rather than Independence, despite protests from residents.
The Administrative Offices of the Court released a draft report this week analyzing the two proposed court facility locations, Bishop or Independence, and is asking residents to review and make comments.
The draft report recommends that the project be located in Bishop.
“There has been a historical mismatch between where cases originate and court users and jurors live – the Bishop area – and where most of the court space is located – in Independence,” the draft report states. “Given that Bishop is the county’s population center, and due to the lack of available funding for another sizable replacement facility for Inyo County in the near-term, the recommended location for the Inyo project is the Bishop area.”
According to the AOC, locating the new courthouse in the Bishop area will provide more Inyo County residents with enhanced access to court services and redistribute court space to where it is needed to better serve the population.
“This recommendation assumes the court will continue to provide daily access to court services and hold in-custody judicial proceedings, including jury trials, in Independence,” the draft recommendation states.
The debate on court facility location began early this year when Presiding Judge Brian Lamb announced that bond funding in the amount of $33 million had been awarded to Inyo County Superior Court for the construction of a new court facility, and that the facility would be built in Bishop. Lamb also said that approximately $2 million in a county-held court rehabilitation fund could be used to build a new, modular facility in Independence.
Residents countywide responded to that announcement with claims that placing the main offices of the court in Bishop rather than the county seat would force residents of Lone Pine and other parts of Southern Inyo to travel that much farther to attend court. There were also claims that building the $33 million facility in Bishop would be one step closer to killing the economy of Independence, where business owners say they rely on the daily business of court employees and clients.
Lamb and the AOC held a string of community meetings throughout the county to discuss the potential court facility project.
At those meetings, the vocal public was strongly opposed to any action that would build the new, larger facility in Bishop.
Some residents said it seemed like Lamb (who was the final decision-maker) had made up his mind, and was not listening to the concerns of his constituency.
From there, the California Judicial Council decided to take up the debate, and said it would consider the comments residents had made before it – not Lamb – made the ultimate decision on where to build the new facility.
Lamb said Wednesday he has been involved with the AOC report to the extend that he and his staff have helped provide “factual” information regarding the county, including its population, development potential and the case load at each court facility.
In its draft report, the AOC weighs the county’s demographics; locations and types of services provided at each of the current court locations; the potential for future development in the county; the location of the county’s legal services and justice partners; where the jurors who serve jury duty live; where county residents work; and what type of transportation infrastructure exists in the county.
What the report doesn’t include, according to Lone Pine resident and Realtor Jenifer Castaneda, is a lack of security at the Independence court facility.
The AOC listed the Independence court facility as a “critical needs” facility due to security concerns, which, in part, is why Inyo County was awarded the $33 million for the court project.
The Bishop facility was listed as only a “high need” project because it does have some security measures the Independence courthouse lacks, but doesn’t have the same amount of space.
“We can’t argue with the fact that the population base is in Bishop,” said Castaneda, whose firm, Blue Sky Realty, had been hired by the courts to find sites around Independence for the new courthouse. “I don’t know how they can take money from a ‘critical need’ facility and move it to a ‘high need’ facility. The issue is a critical need for safety, not convenience.”
She also said that she disagrees “completely” with a section of the draft report that claims that the greatest potential for residential development in Inyo is in the northern part of the county.
Castaneda said the AOC got its housing information from the 2009 Inyo County Housing Element, which did not include any private property zoned for housing development south of Lone Pine. She says that there may be more potential for residential development in Southern Inyo than in the northern part of the county, a possibility that was not factored into the AOC’s draft report.
Judge Lamb said the project has been delayed for nearly a year as court officials met with community members and weighed comments and concerns from residents. He said site selection for the new facility can resume as early as April, when the Judicial Council of the Court makes its final decision.
“Our current plan is to request the Judicial Council of the Court to take this issue up on their agenda in April” for a final decision, said AOC Communications Specialist Teresa Ruano.
Those who would like to comment may review the document and make comments at www.courtinfo.ca.gov/invitationstocomment .
Comments may also be mailed to the AOC, Attention: Inyo Courthouse Office of Court Construction and Management, 455 Golden Gate Ave., 8th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94102.
All comments must be submitted by 5 p.m. Jan. 21.