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Federal Courthouse Expected to Open in Santa Ana This Fall

January 21, 1987|JOHN SPANO | Times Staff Writer

A new building in Santa Ana housing two federal courtrooms should open by September, seven years after Congress first authorized creation of a U.S. District Court branch in Orange County, a federal official said Tuesday.

"We anticipate no delays which would prevent occupancy by the fall of 1987," said David Roth, chief of the General Services Administration's acquisition branch for a four-state area that includes California.

Roth said the agency has committed itself to a lease and a construction contract for a 34,000-square-foot building in downtown Santa Ana within the existing Civic Center complex.

Optimism and caution were reflected in the reactions of both city officials and representatives of the county's legal community.

"If it's truly going to occur after all these years, we feel it will be extremely significant to our downtown redevelopment area," said Santa Ana City Manager David N. Ream.

Cautious Reaction

Noting that the effort to bring a federal court to Santa Ana is more than 10 years old, Ream said the city has "always had a great deal of cautiousness" in reacting to reports of imminent construction.

The new federal court has been enthusiastically supported for years by Orange County lawyers, who say their clients face substantial added litigation costs because the nearest federal courtroom is in Los Angeles. Many lawyers point to the county's growing population in arguing that a branch of the federal court is long overdue here.

But whether the announcement will delight or infuriate this time depends on whether the project will survive the Byzantine judicial disputes and obscure funding traps that have hamstrung the project since 1980. Four years ago, the GSA selected a building in downtown Santa Ana that was to house the branch court after renovation. But federal judges in Los Angeles found the location undignified and unsafe and threatened to refuse to hold court there.

County Owns Site

Last week, the GSA notified the county that under the terms of an option agreement it intends to occupy a county-owned site on the northeast corner of Flower Street and Santa Ana Boulevard, between the Federal Building and the County Jail, that now is being used as a parking lot.

This means that beginning Feb. 28 the federal government will be paying rent on the lot at the rate $115,000 a year under a 10-year lease, according to Ellen Beale, a property agent for the county. The structure to be built there will be leased from the builder for $592,000 a year for 10 years, with an option to buy, the GSA said.

In the letter to the county, the GSA said that it had awarded a contract for constructing a modular building to Atco Structures Co. The contract calls for completion within 180 days.

The Santa Ana courthouse would be a branch of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. The district covers seven counties with 11.95 million residents. As of 1983, Orange County alone had a bigger population than more than half of the almost 100 federal judicial districts in the nation.

It has not been determined which of the Los Angeles judges will be assigned to Orange County or whether the assignments will be permanent or made on a rotating basis. U.S. District Judge Alicemarie Stotler, a former Orange County Superior Court judge, has been mentioned in the past as a possibility for an Orange County assignment.

Though the building that is to be put up now will be of modular construction and will be erected on leased land, Roth emphasized that plans for a permanent courthouse structure in Orange County are still alive. But no funding has been voted for a long-term "concrete and steel" building, Roth said.

The structure to be built will include space for two judges and federal prosecutors and marshals, Roth said.

Discussions about a possible lease of the 1.88-acre site began more than two years ago. The City of Santa Ana now leases the property, and the City Council was notified by the county Tuesday that it has 30 days to vacate.

Lawyers Pleased

"We have been working on the federal court project for a number of years, and we are now delighted that all of the major impediments to the construction of the facility are apparently out of the way," said Stuart T. Waldrip, president of the Orange County Bar Assn.

"We look to the opening of the courthouse in this calendar year," Waldrip said.

Waldrip's sentiments were echoed by Garvin F. Shallenberger, an attorney active with both state and local bar groups who has been involved since 1980 in the push for a branch courthouse in Santa Ana.

"That travel time in the morning on a crowded freeway and returning on a crowded freeway is awfully expensive," Shallenberger said of the inconvenience of having to litigate federal cases in Los Angeles. "There are the per-hour charges by lawyers and witnesses and all the wasted time by the litigants themselves."

As the population grows, Orange County residents and businesses appear in federal court more frequently.

Boost for Santa Ana

"Given our population, and the tremendous number of businesses located here, all these people have a lot of federal litigation," Shallenberger said. "I suspect it's safe to say there isn't any other county in the nation with a population this large that does not have a branch of the federal court."

Ream said the location of a federal courthouse within the Civic Center would "help preserve the integrity" of the complex and further Santa Ana's stature as a legal center.

"Many of the office projects built through our Redevelopment Agency in the past 10 years are principally leased to law firms," Ream said. "We feel the location of federal courts downtown will enhance the rentability of these quality office projects."

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