Approximately 100 people attended an Oct. 4 presentation by the Judicial Council of California outlining the process for selecting a new courthouse site in Plumas County. Most were drawn there by the possibility of constructing a 54,000-square-foot building on Dame Shirley Plaza.
Pella McCormick, the director of the Council’s Facilities Services office, led the crowd through the bureaucratic steps leading to a $100 million three-courtroom building in Quincy.
What piqued the most audience interest was information about how the Judicial Council acquires land for courthouse construction. It deals only with willing sellers, said McCormick, who has roots in Plumas County. Early in the process it determines if the owner of a potential site is willing to sell it. “If not, it’s off the list,” she said.
Dame Shirley Plaza, the expanse of lawn immediately west of the Plumas County Courthouse, is one of three sites selected as a finalist for a new state-owned courthouse in Quincy. The others are property on Lawrence Street now occupied by Feather Publishing Co., and the Stonehouse in East Quincy.
Plumas County has owned the Dame Shirley site since about 2005, said John Kolb, a member of a nine-person local group advising the Judicial Panel during the site selection process.
Evaluating Dame Shirley
McCormick called Dame Shirley “the most preferred site.” It is adjacent to the current courthouse, near the jail in East Quincy, and within the downtown Quincy “government center,” she said.
The Judicial Counsel first proposed the site as a courthouse in 2009. The supervisors considered it for potential acquisition in 2012 and were close to approving the sale, with little public opposition, said Lori Simpson, former Plumas County supervisor representing the Quincy area. They had received an appraisal when the state halted the process, she said.
By then the Great Recession was in full swing. It forced the Judicial Council to put all new courthouse construction on hold, McCormick said. When it resumed the process in 2019, its reassessment of needs put Plumas County eleventh on a statewide priority list of 80 different projects. The current courthouse, which is owned by Plumas County, is undersized and overcrowded. It does not meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, she said.
During the intervening years, the Quincy community embraced Dame Shirley Plaza. When it came into county ownership it was a “nasty, trashy lot,” said Kolb, then an employee of the county Department of Public Works. A streetscape committee coordinating downtown beautification took it on as a project. They hauled turf from the county fairground. Kolb said it likely came from under the bandstand used during the High Sierra Music Festival.
“Soon we had unusual things growing out of the turf,” he said, including seedlings with the iconic serrated leaves of cannabis plants. The community installed an irrigation system and Caltrans donated picnic tables with benches from a remodeled rest station.
A contest gave the newly-created open expanse its name. Dame Shirley, the pen name of Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp, was a resident of Rich Bar. She wrote about life at the gold mining camps of mid-19th-century California in “The Shirley Letters.”
When the supervisors adopted the name, they were specific about calling it a plaza, not a park, said Simpson. “They thought that would be less permanent in case they wanted to use it for something else later,” she said.
This past July, County Administrative Officer Debra Lucero received a letter from the state’s Judicial Council asking the board if they supported Dame Shirley as a site for the new courthouse. This time the opposition was fierce.
Opponents have been regulars at Board of Supervisors meetings, making often-emotional pleas to preserve the space used for concerts, weddings, memorial services, Tai Chi and dog obedience classes. They argue the spacious green entry to Quincy attracts tourists and provides a natural place of respite.
Using Dame Shirley for a new courthouse also has its supporters. Amy Carey, owner of Carey Candy Co. and a member of the Judicial Council’s local advisory committee, has argued that building a courthouse on the plaza would create a government center, “sort of a one-stop business center.” Building it elsewhere would devastate the downtown economy, business owners have argued.
After McCormick’s formal presentation Oct. 4, opponents of construction on Dame Shirley dominated the discussion during a question-and-answer session, which she agreed to hold in lieu of her plan to have questions answered at a series of tables in Serpilio Hall at the Plumas County Fairgrounds.
Rose Buzzetta, of Quincy, made the statement on many peoples’ minds: “If the supervisors don’t sell it, it can’t be bought.”
The supervisors had been willing sellers “until you guys all got into their faces.”Pella McCormick, Council’s Facilities Services director
It was not a question, but McCormick responded: If Plumas County is unwilling to sell Dame Shirley Plaza, the Judicial Council will “take it off the list.” The supervisors had been willing sellers “until you guys all got into their faces,” she said.
The Judicial Council asked the Plumas County Board of Supervisors to decide by Aug. 8 if it was willing to sell Dame Shirley to the state. Instead, on Aug. 1 the supervisors tabled a decision and asked the council to present the project to the public in detail at a community meeting to be held in Quincy.
The Judicial Council has the right to acquire property through eminent domain but has never done so, said Blaine Corren, a spokesman for the Judicial Council. It’s a lengthy, time-consuming process, added McCormick.
Portola courthouse remains unused
Looming over the controversy of building a new state courthouse in Quincy is the specter of the $6 million Eastern Plumas/Sierra Courthouse in Portola. Completed in 2009, the single-courtroom building operated as a courthouse through 2014, when it was closed in November due to budget reductions and staffing shortages. The Judicial Council leased the Plumas/Sierra courthouse building to the state Department of Transportation from in 2017 until February 2022, but it is currently vacant.
McCormick blamed the Great Recession of 2008, calling the empty 6,500 square-foot building “an unfortunate victim of timing.” The state plans to put it on the market, she said.
The Judicial Council hopes to have selected a site for a new Quincy courthouse by May 2024. The timetable calls for concluding a purchase by February 2026, she said. Under the state’s scenario, construction would be completed and a new courthouse opened somewhere in Quincy by April 2030.
To meet that schedule, the Judicial Council needs to know “fairly soon” if the Board of Supervisors is willing to sell the Dame Shirley Plaza site. Nothing involving the Judicial Council appears on the Board’s Oct. 10 agenda.
Kolb, the retired county worker who serves on the public advisory group, said he was hopeful the structure originally planned for Quincy could be built on Dame Shirley without removing all of the lawn. “It would be a real showpiece for downtown Quincy,” he said.
Now, with the forceful opposition, he is uncertain. “So we shall see,” Kolb said.