Sale Of Chino Courthouse Signals That Court Closing Alignment Is Permanent

The county, through its real estate services department, has finalized the sale of the Chino Courthouse to the city of Chino.
The move was roundly condemned by court access advocates, who see the sale as an indication that last year’s San Bernardino County court system realignment which centralized a major portion of court services in San Bernardino will become a permanent arrangement rather than a stopgap fix to redress a temporary budget crunch besetting the statewide court system.
The sale of the courthouse delivered an immediate $2.2 million cash infusion to the county, $1,1257,400 of which it must pass along to the Judicial Council of California. But the sale also lessens the prospect that court services at the county’s southeast end will be available to the sizeable population there any time in the foreseeable future. The cost of replacing the facility, both in terms of land acquisition and construction costs would dwarf the price Chino paid to acquire the 47,251 square foot structure, which is situated on 2.98 acres.
The Chino Courthouse had been in existence for a generation. On July 20, 1976, the county board of supervisors, then consisting of Daniel Mikesell, James Mayfield, Dennis Hansberger, Nancy Smith and Robert Townsend, approved a joint powers agreement between the city of Chino and the county to construct facilities at the Civic Center located at 13220 Central Avenue in the city of Chino. The development included county offices, the Chino Court, a city police facility, City Hall and city-developed grounds. Subsequently, the county conveyed a portion of this land containing the city-owned and operated facilities to the city, pursuant to a vote of the board on February 23, 1999. The county retained a portion of the land containing the courthouse, which is located at 13260 Central Avenue. In February 2009, the board of supervisors approved a memorandum of understanding with the city outlining the parties’ shared responsibilities and costs related to the landscape and hardscape maintenance services at the civic center. In 2002, the passage of the Trial Court Facilities Act, Senate Bill 1732, required the transfer of responsibility for funding and operation of trial court facilities from the county to the Judicial Council of California on behalf of the State of California. As a result, the county was required to transfer the responsibility and equity interest of the portion of the Chino Court used exclusively for court purposes to the Judicial Council of California, or 51.17 percent. The county reserved the responsibility and equity interest in the portion of the building used exclusively for county purposes, or 48.83 percent. The Trial Court Facilities Act provided sufficient authority to convey a portion of the equity interest to the Judicial Council of California, though the county retained fee ownership to the land and the improvements on the title. In December 2008 the county entered into a joint occupancy agreement with the Judicial Council of California for the Judicial Council of California and county’s shared possession, occupancy, and use of the Chino Court. The county became the managing party for operations and maintenance of the building and the Judicial Council of California was to reimburse the county quarterly for its share of maintenance, utilities, and insurance costs.
As of 2010, the state began imposing on the Judicial Council of California and the entire court system in general substantial economies, including several successive years of operating capital reductions. In response, San Bernardino County Superior Court Presiding Judge Ron Christianson and his successor, current San Bernardino County Superior Court Presiding Judge Marsha Slough, instituted a series of court closures, including shuttering the Twin Peaks, Redlands, Needles and Big Bear courthouses, as well as the Chino Courthouse, which was closed in 2012.
Inadequate funding for the county’s courts continued to be a reality and in 2013 Slough conceptualized and in May 2014 implemented a county court realignment which entailed transferring all civil cases countywide to the newly-constructed 11 story-San Bernardino Justice Center with its 35 courtrooms, located in downtown San Bernardino. San Bernardino district criminal cases and some Fontana District criminal cases, which were previously heard in the San Bernardino Central Courthouse built in 1927 and in Fontana, respectively, were rerouted to the new San Bernardino Justice Center. The West Valley Superior Courthouse in Rancho Cucamonga, which was formerly a venue for both civil and criminal cases originating on the west end of the county, was redevoted almost entirely to criminal cases and hearings on both civil and domestic violence restraining order matters, including those arising on the county’s west end and a portion of other felony and misdemeanor cases from the county’s central district which were previously heard at the Fontana Courthouse. The historic San Bernardino Courthouse remained as the forum for family law cases countywide. The Fontana Courthouse became the stage for all small claims, landlord tenant disputes and traffic/non-traffic infractions from the San Bernardino, Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga districts. The Victorville Courthouse remained a venue for High Desert criminal and family law cases. The Joshua Tree Courthouse remains in operation for criminal cases. The Barstow Courthouse, where previously all order of criminal and civil cases were heard, is now open two days a week exclusively for traffic cases.
From the time she first proposed the realignment as a way to deal with dwindling revenue provisions from the state for court operations in October 2013, the wisdom of Slough’s transformation of the county court system and the centralization of all civil courts in downtown San Bernardino has been sharply questioned.
Far flung San Bernardino County, which spans 20,105 square miles, is the largest county in the lower 48 states, with a land mass greater than the states of Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut combined. Slough’s change has imposed a tremendous logistical burden on many of the county’s citizens who need to access the courts. Driving distance from Needles to San Bernardino is 212 miles, with an average one-way traveling time of three hours and nine minutes.
In the months prior to and after the initiation of the realignment, a group of legal professionals, including lawyers and former judges, importuned Slough to reconsider what she was contemplating and then what she had done. Their entreaties failed.
There remained, however, a flicker of hope that as the state’s financial picture improves, cuts to funding for the court system would be restored statewide, and in San Bernardino County this would translate into reinstituting operations at the several closed court venues around the county. Those hopes were largely dashed, however, when Terry Thompson, the director of the county’s real estate services department, last week presented the board of supervisors with a recommendation to make the sale of courthouse to the city of Chino. Thompson termed the sale an “equity rights purchase.” Accordingly, Thompson proposed, and the board of supervisors approved a “relinquishment of equity interest and termination of transfer and joint occupancy agreement between the Judicial Council of California and the county of San Bernardino” along with “declaring the county-owned property located at 13260 Central Avenue in the city of Chino (Assessor Parcel Number (APN) 1020-272-15), formerly the site of the Chino Courthouse, surplus and authorize its sale to the city of Chino upon payment of $2,200,000.”
Christina Volkers, Court Executive Officer, confirmed to the Sentinel on August 4 that “I don’t expect we will have a full service courthouse in Chino or Chino Hills, although we might have a facility where some ancillary court services are performed. The need for a courthouse in Chino and Chino Hills is not as pressing as in the rest of the county, such as in Barstow.”
Volkers signaled that the sale of the Chino Courthouse was a deliberate and thought-through move and not one forced upon her and presiding judge Slough.
“We worked with the county and approved the sale,” Volkers said.
The finality of the sale makes the move irreversible, Volkers said, meaning that the prospect of a court being reestablished in the southwest portion of the county in the foreseeable future is virtually non-existent.
“I can’t say I don’t see one being built there for another generation but I don’t see it for another three to five to seven years,” Volkers said.
Thompson confirmed that neither the county’s real estate division nor the county had pressured the Superior Court to divest itself of the unused Chino Courthouse. Rather, he said, it was the other way around. “That decision wasn’t made here [i.e., in the real estate division],” Thompson said. “It was my understanding that decision was made by the judges.”
Thompson said he was told “the courthouse needs were not going to be coming back to that location.”
He said there had been no real discussion about the cost considerations with regard to replacing the courtroom space contained in the Chino Courthouse in the event that a decision was made to reestablish court facilities in the county’s southwest corner. “We never did that cost survey,” Thompson said. He said he did not know, precisely, how much it would cost to replace the courthouse in today’s market but that it would be more than the $2.2 million Chino paid to acquire the vacant courthouse.
“My guess is it would cost more than that,” he said.
Moreover, he said, there would be a considerable wait for such quarters to be built.
“Assuming you had the land, to go through the entitlement and development process you are looking at about 30 months from start to finish,” he said.
In his written report to the board of supervisors making the sale recommendation, Thompson said the decision to sell was driven by the consideration that “in 2012, the Chino court discontinued its operation due to the court system’s budgetary shortfall and the property has since remained vacant.” He said “The county and the city propose to enter into a purchase agreement to transfer the fee ownership of the Chino Court to the city for $2,200,000, which is the agreed upon ‘as is’ value based on two appraisals prepared by Villegas Appraisal on behalf of the city. The real estate services department and Judicial Council of California staff reviewed the appraisals and determined the agreed upon purchase price to be reasonable.”
James Banks, a past president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association who has been at the forefront of the protest to Slough’s realignment, told the Sentinel, “The counties of California surrendered to the state of California all control over courthouses. This was done by 2002 legislation that became fully implemented about 2007. The state agency in charge of the court system is the Judicial Council. This body is composed of the judges appointed to it. As best I can tell, with regard to courthouses and the deployment of personnel, this body had absolute, unchecked power. They answer to nobody and it appears that nobody (including our state senator and assemblyman) is willing to modify the authority of the Judicial Council. Thus, they can do whatever they wish and none of us has anything to say about it. It is a foolish concentration of power but until I find a state senator or assemblyman willing to lead the effort to correct the concentration of power, we’re not going to change it.”
Banks continued, “Closing the outlying courts can be claimed to be an economy move. The previous financial status of the Superior Court in San Bernardino County does not support that claim. This is a terrible disservice to the people of Chino and Chino Hills, made even worse by the closing of the civil courts in Rancho Cucamonga. The government should be estopped from claiming that these courts waste taxpayer money. The courthouse in Rancho Cucamonga was designed and built so that it could easily accommodate 27 court rooms. The building is still being operated but at less than half capacity. One retired judge who visited it recently told me he thought it looked like an inner city bus station.”

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