Mistrust prevails in Indian casino flap
The road to cooperation and understanding has been a rocky one in this corner of El Dorado County, where Shingle Springs homeowners are at odds with a local Indian tribe over land-use rights.
A page torn from the history books? No, it’s simply West Slope politics, 1990s style. But after three years of contentious debate, this controversy may well be on the way to resolution. Our story so far:
In 1996, the Varona Track of Miwuk Indians announced plans to construct a casino on their Shingle Springs Rancheria land in western El Dorado County – a 160-care parcel that was deeded to the tribe by the federal government in 1920. The problem, however, involves access to the casino. The Shingle Springs reservation is landlocked; that is, there is no direct access to and from U.S. Highway 50.
In order for patrons to access the casino, they would have to use a winding, one-lane road that runs through the Grassy Run subdivision, which consists of 73 homes on about 400 acres. The Grassy Run Homeowners Association mobilized to put a stop to the casino, and was awarded a court injunction in December 1997, which ruled that the tribe could not use the subdivision’s access road for commercial purposes.
“We opposed it for health and safety reasons,” said Penny Le Doux, the president of the Grassy Run Homeowners Association. “It’s a one-lane, rural road, which in some places is only 14-feet wide. There were many concerns, but the big one is getting emergency vehicles in and out if there were a fire. And how would the patrons get out?”
Grassy Run was developed in 1976, when no one lived on the adjoining Rancheria reservation. Many families moved to Grassy Run to get out of the city and enjoy country living, little dreaming that a casino could be someday placed nearby.
While wrestling with the homeowners in court, the tribe decided to construct a low-impact, Class II casino on the property. A 20,000-square-foot tent was erected in 1996, and used temporarily for card, bingo and pull-tab games.
But that structure, the Crystal Palace Card Club, operated off and on – its longest continuous time of operation being only four months in 1997. It is now abandoned.
“That structure was used as a feasibility study,” said Dick Moody, the tribal chairman for the Shingle Springs Band of Miwuk Indians. “We will be removing that tent, even though we don’t have to.
“We fully intend to proceed with construction of a casino, as it is our right to do,” he said. “We are currently looking at other commercially zoned lands as an alternative to Rancheria property, and that remains an option.”
An alternative site would seem to pacify both sides, but the tribe continues to say that a casino on their Rancheria property is an option. The tribe has recently purchased nine lots that would allow them to build their own access road to Highway 50 – but must get formal approval of the land sales from the Bureau of Indian Affairs before construction could begin.
“As with any bureaucracy, that could take some time,” Moody said. “But we would be happy to get things started within six months.”
Even though the two sides are trying to work things out, a general mistrust continues to linger. Some say that they would not be surprised if the two sides ended up in court once again.
“What it boils down to is that (the homeowners) don’t want us here,” Moody said. “It’s a shame, but it’s one of those things. Certain members of the county resent the fact that they do not have control over what is done on the reservation.”
But Cheryl Schmit, the co-director for Stand Up For California, claims that the tribe has been unwilling to work toward an equitable solution.
“We worked very hard to try and open a discussion between the tribe and local government,” Schmit said. “But during this exchange of ideas, the tribe heard some things they didn’t like, so they threw up a wall and refused to cooperate.
“They want to flaunt their sovereignty with the very citizens who would act as their patrons.”
Moody, however, contends that the tribe has been cooperating with anyone willing to listen.
“We’ve had productive meetings with three of the county supervisors (Dave Solaro, Penny Humphreys and Ray Nutting), who directed us to the idea of finding other commercially zoned land,” he said.
Le Doux, also, contends that the two sides are playing nice.
“I’m pleased that it has taken this turn,” she said. “If we had our druthers, we wouldn’t want a casino in our neighborhood. But we recognize their right to be here.
“There is a potential here for a casino/convention complex that would benefit the entire community. That would be a win-win situation.”
Today, 52 families live on the Shingle Springs Rancheria, and the tribe operates its own library, church, fire department, tribal center and community center. It is one of 67 tribes which have applied for gaming compacts with the state of California. If one is awarded, the tribe could start Las Vegas-style gaming operations in any casino they constructed.
That is, of course, if they can stay out of court.
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