Is the AOC looking at all new courthouse projects?

Posted on June 11, 2011


Recently announced, the AOC has indicated that they are reconsidering courthouse designs in Markleeville and Downieville, two of the many boonie-ville’s slated to get new overpriced out of character courthouses. To get an understanding of the challenges presented, just walk this way…


In Markleeville, the challenge is purchasing a big enough piece of land to build a new courthouse as most of the land is owned by the U.S. Forestry Service. Markleeville is largely cut out of the federal woods surrounding it.  In Downieville, the situation is quite different. Though most of this county is also owned by the federal government and Downieville has about the same number of residents as Markleeville, the difference is that Downieville is a city built in a steep canyon where two sizable rivers join. Hardly anything in Downieville is flat and if it is, it is in the floodplain.

The Plumas-Sierra Courthouse in Loyalton costs a little over six million dollars and is an impressive, stylish state of the art building designed for snow country. Unlike many of the AOC’s other courthouse plans, it looks like it could be a part of the neighborhood (that is – if the Loyalton city flag didn’t appear to be the blue poly tarp but I digress..)

The challenge to building these small courthouses in rural areas is creating the three circulating areas through a courthouse that are required in the trial court facilities standards. For those not in the know, each new courthouse has one circulation area for employees, one circulation area for the public and a third circulation area for the incarcerated. Currently, in many of these rural courthouses, the Sheriff marches prisoners up the front steps and right through the public entrance of the courthouse right alongside the public and jurors because a hundred years ago, the three circulating areas was not even a consideration. So the challenge has been to have some form of holding and the associated three circulating area in even the smallest of courthouses where trials are infrequent or rare.  Once a holding cell is installed in a courthouse, then come the expensive detention and circulation control systems and the three pathways through the building. In some smaller courthouses currently, they hold prisoners on Sheriffs department busses and process them in from there, utilizing the bus itself as a holding cell because some courthouses have no holding cells.

The question remains: Can the AOC take the Portola-Loyalton Courthouse (an award winning design by the way…) (image here)(Whole AOC image portfolio here) and make it so many feet wider and deeper to accomodate the incarcerated, either with bus holding or small cells and dual-purpose circulation? Rather than hire a seperate architect that wants to build an out of character building, consider the cookie- cutter approach of that small, affordable courthouse all over snow country where these one courtroom courthouses are needed? How many millions of dollars would be saved on design, while building a product that is more closely aligned and fits in the neighborhood it exists in?

What the AOC has done is a really, really poor job of is listening to the communities where these courthouses are being installed. Both Susanville and Mammoth Lakes residents have indicated that the designs for their courthhouses are out of character for the surrounding community. When residents railed against the out of character nature of the projects, the AOC acted like it is a done deal and gave residents no choice. This has created a lot of animousity in these communities towards the AOC. We’re glad to see the AOC reconsider the Markleeville and Downieville projects cost and scope as spending 49 million to serve 400 residents borders the absurd. This reconsideration however is not entirely the AOC’s doing. In both of these locales, land is hard to come by for out of character, oversized facilities and it was the courts themselves that suggested the downsizing. We suggest those same courts pay a visit to Loyalton courthouse and see how you might be able to make something like that work in your community – even if the occasional prisoner has to be processed from buses or video arraignment from the jails would reduce the courthouse costs.

Think outside the box “for the benefit of all Californians” and revisit all of these questionable, oversized, overpriced rural projects.

For the rest of you reading this: Both of the communites mentioned herein (Downieville and Markleeville) are bucket list destinations for nature lovers. Both are surrounded by U.S. Forestry Service lands and have very unique, small town california character all their own that should be experienced. Unfortunately, every one we checked with who visited Quincy or Loyalton in Plumas county claims the whole county to be a speed trap. One commenter went as far as saying “In Plumas County, if you don’t work operating a radar gun then you probably don’t work.” Given our internet reach, I’m sure the Quincy or Plumas County Chamber of Commerce is going to have a heyday with that observation.