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  • Randall Benton /

    Court analyst Rocio Vega admires the marble walls on the second floor of the Yolo County Courthouse in Woodland. The county is building a new courthouse at Main and Fifth streets that will allow the court to combine some facilities and allow better access for people with disabilities.

  • Randall Benton /

    Work continues at the new Yolo County Courthouse in Woodland on Thursday, January 9, 2014. Yolo County is building a new courthouse facility to replace the approximately 100 year old current building.

  • Randall Benton /

    This courtroom shows some of the historic building’s ornate woodwork. The county is trying to determine future uses for the courthouse.

  • Randall Benton /

    This old vault door in the payments room of the Yolo County Courthouse, where fiscal clerk Judy Paul works, is one of the building’s historic features. The courthouse dates back to World War I.

  • Randall Benton /

    A marble stairwell with wood and brass handrail at the Yolo County Courthouse in Woodland on Thursday, January 9, 2014. Yolo County is building a new courthouse facility to replace the approximately 100 year old current building.

  • Randall Benton /

    The front entrance of the Yolo County Courthouse in Woodland on Thursday, January 9, 2014. Yolo County is building a new courthouse facility to replace the approximately 100 year old current building.

Yolo County’s modern courthouse in sight

Published: Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014 - 12:00 am

Look out from the steps of the stately old courthouse on Woodland’s Court Street, and you’ll see the girders rising above downtown.

Workers on Main and Fifth streets are erecting a new five-story, $161.4 million building that will house all of Yolo County’s courtrooms starting in 2015. The project reached a milestone last week as Woodland-based Gayle Manufacturing laid the last piece of steel atop the structure.

Court leaders want the new building to be what the venerable old courthouse has been for nearly a century in Woodland.

“The old courthouse is the anchor of downtown. We wanted to continue that,” said Yolo Superior Court Judge Kathleen M. White, the local judge overseeing the construction project.

“We’re very conscious that this is a public trust,” White continued. “I hope we succeeded. I think we did.”

The current Yolo County Courthouse, with its imposing granite facade and columns, its stair-stepped entrance and marble-walled interior, dates back to World War I and is on the National Register of Historic Places. But security, technology, space and convenience have long been concerns on Court Street.

Yolo’s seven court facilities are scattered across Woodland. At the main courthouse, jurors are often squeezed out of cramped jury rooms to wait in the hallways, sharing space with defendants, witnesses and attorneys. Those summoned to serve often wait in lines that can stretch out to the courthouse steps. The building is largely inaccessible to those with disabilities.

But it’s the proximity of inmates to the public that most concerns court leaders.

Inmate chain gangs are ferried across city streets and shepherded from tiny holding cells through crowded corridors into courtrooms.

“People wanting to get to court sit a foot away from someone in chains,” White said.

It’s both a security risk and an injustice to the men and women brought to court, said longtime Yolo criminal attorney Steven Sabbadini.

“It’s prejudicial to be chained up in those striped uniforms and led across the street. It’s a perp walk,” Sabbadini said. “When they’re walking through the halls, it’s not a good thing for them, for jurors, for witnesses and alleged victims or for family members.”

The state Legislature in 2008 approved $5 billion in bonds to fund courthouse construction and renovation projects across the state. Lawmakers increased an assortment of filing fees and vehicle-related fines to pay off the bonds.

In all, 33 of the state’s 58 counties have envisioned new facilities, many of them proceeding with land purchases and project designs. But recent uncertainty over the state of court construction funds delayed a number of those projects. Judicial Council officials estimated nearly $1.5 billion in user fees designated for court projects have been rerouted to fund day-to-day operations in recent years.

Last year, the Judicial Council of California delayed 15 courts projects – including those in Sacramento, Placer and Nevada counties – pending the restoration of construction funds to the state budget. Sacramento County is counting on a $452 million courthouse at the edge of the railyard that locals consider both a catalyst for development in the area and a much-needed pressure valve for its current overcrowded building, but its timetable remains uncertain.

Yolo County was able to avoid delays by advancing its project before budget problems grew dire, said Yolo Superior Court Presiding Judge Steven Basha. The state in 2012 approved $134 million in construction bonds for Yolo, pushing up a bond sale originally set for April 2013, and Woodland redevelopment officials expedited the project design process and the state’s purchase of the land.

“We were cognizant that there was a need to keep on track,” Basha said. “A whole lot of people worked hard to keep on schedule.”

The new 164,000-square-foot courthouse will be more than three times the size of the present 50,000-square-foot site, and the improvements will be obvious and immediate. Inmates will be transferred directly from county jail to a holding area away from others doing business with the court and where they can speak more privately with their counsel.

Arraignments and other high-volume traffic will be handled on the courthouse’s first floor. Juvenile and family matters will be handled on the second floor, while the upper floors will be dedicated to criminal and civil proceedings.

There will also be plenty of parking. Today, court visitors vie for parking in the neighborhoods around the courthouse.

But for veterans of the Yolo courts, saying goodbye to the old building at Court and Third will be hard to do.

“I have a lot of memories and good feelings about that old courthouse – the oak, the marble, the terra cotta, the columns – I’m going to miss all of that. What a cool building,” Sabbadini said. “I’ve practiced in that courthouse almost every day for my 33 years in law. It’s my home away from home. I’m going to miss it.”

“It has this aura of history about it – the ambiance of this building,” Basha said. “But it will remain. It will not be knocked down.”

Yolo County will retain title to the historic courthouse once operations move, and it has called on residents to submit ideas on how the building should be used in the future.

More than 40 suggestions have been submitted so far. Museum or art gallery. Senior home. Public and retail spaces akin to the Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg and San Francisco’s Ferry Building.

“It’s a wonderful, historic building that we hope will continue to serve the city as a whole,” White said. “It’s a community asset.”

Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.

Read more articles by Darrell Smith

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