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071118 civil court flooding-1

Judges Tim Staffel and James Rigali, who preside over Departments 1 and 2 in the Santa Maria Superior Court Civil Divisions, will have to juggle courtroom space and their calendars to hear cases over the next several weeks after a pipe ruptured in Department 1 nearly two weeks ago, resulting in flooding.

After a water pipe ruptured in Santa Maria Superior Court's Department 1, flooding the entire civil division, the building will be closed while it undergoes major reconstruction work.

Court staff estimated both Departments 1 and 2 will remain closed at least for a month but say it's still too early to tell. 

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A close-up is shown of the water line that broke inside the ceiling of Department 1 of the Santa Maria Superior Court Civil Division, where Judge Tim Staffel presides. The pipe rupture resulted in flooding, and crews say it's still too early to tell when remodeling will be finished.

"A pipe burst in the ceiling above the spectator section toward the back of the courtroom -- Department 1 -- where I preside, on the right-hand side as you walk in," Judge Tim Staffel explained. "Apparently, this occurred sometime over the past weekend, July 1, and the water was pouring out of the burst pipe into Department 1 all over the floor.

"The water pooled up and [flooded] onto the floor that slopes downward towards the hallway between departments 1 and 2," Staffel said. "The more problematic aspect of this is the extent of flooding requires significant drying time and effort, especially as the water pooled up and got behind some of the wood-paneling walls."

Ellen Scott, civil divisions manager for the Santa Maria Superior Court, said the flooding was only discovered July 2, when a bailiff entered the room a little after 7 a.m. 

"The water had also soaked Department 2 after the water broke loose from Department 1 and ran down the hall," said Scott, pointing to the floor. "When I came in and stepped onto the carpet, the water came up to my shoes and my feet were completely wet."

Crews discovered that the pipeline inside the ceiling of Department 1 functioned as a domestic hot water line, which runs through the length of the building and feeds into restrooms around the civil division, according to Scott.

"The water line goes a good distance here, but we don't know the estimate of how much water we lost when the pipe broke," Scott said. "We won't know for a while when this can all be fixed."

Over the last week, construction crews ripped up most of the carpet in both courtrooms, dried them out and de-humidified everything, said Scott, who estimates the building to be between 50 to 60 years old. 

"Nothing like this has occurred to this extent, at least in my memory since I began working here," Scott said. "In old buildings, you do get water leaks from time to time, but I never saw anything like this before." 

The law library, located next to Department 1, also was impacted by water seepage, along with the bailiff's office on the other side of the building, according to Scott.

"It's hard to lose two courtrooms in the same division at once -- it poses a tough challenge for us because it's not like we have extra courtroom space to begin with," she added. 

Over the coming weeks, staff will continue assessing damages, clean everything out and determine what items they can salvage from both departments. 

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The civil division of the Santa Maria Superior Court is closed at least until mid-August, after a water pipe in the ceiling of Department 1, Judge Tim Staffel's courtroom, ruptured and flooded both Departments 1 and 2 on July 1.

All the furnishings -- including the audience seats, the jury box, desks and the like -- will be removed and put into storage while crews come in and continue cleanup. 

"Everything that's taken out of the building will remain in storage at least up until a month while the court gets remodeled," said Darrel Parker, Superior Court executive officer. "We also anticipate that the walls are so saturated [that] the drywall will probably have to be removed as a result, along with the insulation." 

The remodeling costs will be covered by the county of Santa Barbara's insurance, according to Parker. 

Staffel, who presides over Department 1, was out last week but has since returned and will handle the court calendar for Department 2 while that judge, James Rigali, is out this week, Parker explained. 

"We've been using Department 5, so we're still continuously looking for other courtrooms that finish their calendars early and go dark, so it's been a real juggling act," Parker said. 

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Departments 1 and 2 flooded recently, following a water pipe that burst inside the ceiling of Department 1 at the Santa Maria Superior Court, civil division. Court staff  estimate that both courtrooms will be closed for at least a month.

Staffel said he has been handling his cases in Department 5 on Monday, Tuesday and Friday, and in Department 3 on Wednesday and Thursday. 

"It's been a bit of 'musical courtrooms' -- like musical chairs -- as judicial officers switch in and out with available courtroom space handling their calendars," Staffel said. "We're making do and have contingency plans in place for this week and for the next several weeks."

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Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210


Courts/Public Safety Reporter