Casino decision not final

By Cheryl Schmit / Guest CommentaryOctober 26, 2012 

Recently, a guest commentary by former Congressman Richard Lehman in the Sept. 27 Sierra Star said that it is not right for citizens to condemn the decision arrived at by government officials to allow the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians to create new Indian lands and place a casino in the midst of their community near Madera. Yet, Mr. Lehman knows the process is not yet final. The Secretary of the Interior must still issue a Notice of Decision, which provides an opportunity to all affected parties for judicial review of the acquisition of new Indian lands.

A judicial review is the only method that private property owners and citizen's organizations have to actually participate and raise concerns over the introduction of a tribal casino on Highway 99. This is because federal decision makers have purposefully and intentionally excluded them from any role in the Department of the Interior's decision making process.

If the surrounding community of citizens is expected to be welcoming neighbors to a tribal casino, citizens must be assured, through a judicial review, that the integrity of the decision is free from bureaucratic bias, flawed analysis and casino interests' checkbook influence. After all, it is casino investors from Las Vegas fronting the tribe to promote a casino on land that is not a reservation where no one else can.

Certainly the citizens of the community deserve to have their voices heard and their legitimate concerns fairly and objectively evaluated.

A Las Vegas company owns the land at the casino sight. All state laws and county codes still apply to this land. Making this Indian land will take it out of the regulatory authority of the state and the county, thereby removing state environmental laws, the civil regulatory laws enacted to protect the rights of all citizens and then provide a tax exempt status to the land and tribal businesses.

However, a decision delivered June 2012, by U.S. Supreme Court in Salazar vs. Patchak opened the doors of justice to land owners and citizen groups on Indian lands decisions and casino determinations. Citizens are now able to challenge all aspects of the Secretary of the Interior's decisions, whether it's a challenge to the National Environmental Protection Policy, a trust decision or any casino determination under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

For example, a National Environmental Policy Act review of the North Fork proposal failed to include consultation and comment from the Madera Municipal Airport Commission. The proposed North Fork casino is sited at the departure end of the airport runway in an area that allows for only 150 persons per acre, one building per every 4-6 acres and all assemblies restricted to 150 persons per acre.

This recommended state restriction on land use is a measure to protect the safety of the public. Yet, there is no mention in the North Fork environmental review of local land use around the airport even though the Federal Aviation Agency states it is the land owners responsibility to conform to local land use.

Clearly, the current administration views the court ruling in Patchak as making their own jobs troublesome and burdensome. Most governments, state agencies, private property owners and citizen's organizations are thankful that the court is requiring the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to abide by the law and basically do the job it was supposed to in the first place.

The court upheld the federal law that has existed to protect the rights and private property rights of all citizens from the abuse of federal overreaching actions. The BIA chose to ignore the law and now complains their job is too hard.

The Congressman knows, citizens not only deserve but have a legal right to condemn and challenge overreaching federal decisions -- especially decisions to place a casino in their midst.

-- Cheryl Schmit is founder and director of Stand Up for California, an organization with a focus on gambling issues.

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