Chukchansi files suit to stop Mono casino on 99

Attorney contends Governor Brown failed to address significant environmental issues

Brian WilkinsonJanuary 10, 2013 

The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians has filed a lawsuit that could delay the groundbreaking for the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians proposed $350 million casino on Highway 99 north of Madera.

The project was approved by Governor Jerry Brown on Aug. 30 and the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved placing 305 acres in trust Nov. 26, an important step in allowing construction plans to move forward.

The Chukchansi suit, filed in Superior Court in Sacramento County by Los Angeles attorney Carlyle W. Hall, Jr., names Madera County, the city of Madera, the governor, Caltrans and the Department of Fish and Game as defendants.

The suit contends the governor did not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when he issued his approval and that there is a wide variety of important and obvious defects in the Environmental Impact Statement.

The suit states the governor had been repeatedly informed of potentially significant environmental impacts from the project but failed to address or consider the impacts and did not ensure that all feasible mitigation measures would be applied to minimize those impacts.

The suit states that "Despite several requests, the governor's office has refused to provide a reason or rational as to why the governor failed to comply with CEQA in issuing his determination."

The suit asks the court to force the governor to set aside his approval and comply with CEQA before making any further decisions regarding the proposed casino.

The suit was signed by Dr. Karen Wynn, treasurer of the Picayune Tribe, on Nov. 30.

At the time of his approval, Brown stated the casino would be in the best interest of the Mono tribe, would not be detrimental to the surrounding community, would be built on lands historically connected to the tribe and would enjoy local support.

In a letter to Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar, Brown said the federal administrative process was extremely thorough, lasting more than seven years, including numerous hearings and generated thousands of pages of administrative records.

District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler called the governor's decision one of the most positive things to ever happen in Madera County.

Wheeler said the casino would provide construction and permanent jobs, benefit many county services, help existing businesses, schools and non-profit organizations, not just today and tomorrow, but forever.

In a separate action, a federal suit has been filed jointly by the Madera Ministerial Association, Stand Up For California and three residents of Madera, challenges the Secretary of Interior's approval to place the land in trust, contending the federal officials did not consider the effects the project would have on the environment and nearby residents.

Attorney Heidi McNeil Staudenmaier of Phoenix, Az., also feels the location is inappropriate.

"The situation is a blatant example of "reservation shopping," said Staudenmaier. "The North Fork tribe and its Las Vegas backer Station Casinos, have 'shopped' for their proposed mega-casino site based on its location closer to potential gamblers. This situation disregards the devastating and negative impact upon the citizens and businesses in the local community as well as other nearby tribes. The North Fork tribe already has existing lands -- those traditional and historical lands are nearly 40 miles away the proposed casino site."

Stand Up For California is a statewide non-profit organization with a focus on gambling issues and is against 'off-reservations' casinos.

The organization's web site states Stand Up For Californiahas testified before local government boards, regional agencies, state and national commissions and continues to make its presence known at the California State Capitol by actively lobbying against bills that expand the scope and intensity of gambling without comprehensive regulation or, which may interfere with the civil rights or property rights of all citizens.

Cheryl Schmit is the organization's director.

Schmit said citizens have objective evidence that affect the federal government's decision about putting an off-reservation casino near Madera.

"Citizens are seeking a reversal of the Secretary of the Interior's determination to take the land out of the regulatory authority of the state for a tribal casino,' Schmit said. "A judicial review is necessary as the secretary did not consider significant factual evidence regarding the detrimental social, economic and environmental impacts to the surrounding community."

Schmit said that in 2000, the electorate of California supported proposition 1A authorizing tribal casinos on "established Indian lands."

"Statewide surveys demonstrate electorate opposition to off reservation gaming is consistently 69-72%," Schmit said. "In 2005 two affected counties held advisory votes, Yuba 53% and Amador 85% in opposition to off reservation tribal casino proposals. In 2010, citizens in the City of Richmond vote 58% in opposition to an off reservation tribal casino."

The Madera Ministerial Association has previously voiced its opposition to the casino.

Pastor Randy Brannon, past president of the association, made up of 30 churches and ministerial-based organizations, said prior to Brown's decision, the association felt the casino proposal was a violation of the public's trust to move the casino on property which was never historically belonged to the Mono tribe.

Elaine Bethel Fink, council chairwoman of the 1,900 member Mono tribe, is not surprised over the legal challenges.

"We are disappointed because every day of delay costs the tribe and local community not only thousands of jobs, but roughly $300,000 in lost economic activity," Fink said. "We are working through the process and we hope to have this settled and bring these jobs and investments to Madera County as soon as possible."

The tribe is partnering with Station Casinos of Las Vegas to build the facility. In addition to the 72,000-square-foot casino featuring 2,000 slot machines and 50 table games, the development will also include a 200-room hotel with pool and spa, three bars, a bingo/meeting hall and several restaurants.

The original plan was to build the entire project at one time, but due to the current economy, the tribe has decided to build the project in phases over the next seven years starting with the casino, followed by the hotel and other project features.

According to the tribe, the project will support 1,200 jobs during construction and 1,500 employees when opened.

It is estimated the casino will generate about $100 million a year in payroll and a variety of services and supplies. Station Casinos, who has had a management agreement with the tribe since 2003, will manage the casino for the first seven years. At that time the tribe will have the option of negotiating a new contract with Stations or take over operation of the casino.

The Mono tribe has about 61 acres in North Fork, but tribal leaders say the land is not readily available to build on and is too remote.

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