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New courthouse in Santa Rosa clears key hurdle

  • The exterior of the Sonoma County Courthouse in Santa Rosa on Monday afternoon Feb. 25, 2013. Scott Manchester / The Press Democrat

Construction of a new $174 million courthouse in Santa Rosa received a huge boost Friday from state court officials, who also blessed plans for new facilities in Lake and Mendocino counties.

Members of the state Judicial Council meeting Friday in San Francisco approved construction plans for the three facilities, which have been delayed for years because of the state's budget crisis.

"This is a historic moment for us," Jose Guillen, the executive officer of Sonoma County courts, said Friday.

The courthouse plans for Santa Rosa call for a six-story, 169,342-square foot facility at the county administration complex near the current Hall of Justice. It would replace a 48-year-old facility officials say is outdated, undersized and unable to be fixed.

The new facility will feature modern security that allows for the safe transport of inmates through a tunnel connecting the courthouse and jail, as well as a larger jury assembly area and deliberation rooms, a children's waiting room and an in-custody holding area. It also is designed to be earthquake-safe.

"We in Sonoma County can certainly use a new courthouse. The security measures in place are woefully inadequate," District Attorney Jill Ravitch said Friday.

Gov. Jerry Brown could still thwart the plans, depending on whether he can resist raiding a $290 million statewide construction fund as he has done in the past to balance the budget.

Court officials said it's a positive sign that Brown's preliminary budget, released Thursday, left the fund intact. A total of 15 projects are dependent on the money.

"It's promising that the governor did not propose this time, for the first time in a few years, using money for those 15 projects," said Teresa Ruano, a spokeswoman for the state courts.

The projects are funded through 2008 legislation that increased fines and fees to support $5 billion in bonds to build or renovate 41 courthouses in 34 counties.

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