Stakes getting higher in Miwoks’ quest to build casino
SHINGLE SPRINGS – An expensive war of paper has been waged in El Dorado County.
The 160-acre Shingle Spring Rancheria, now home to approximately 140 members of the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, is in the midst of two lawsuits challenging the environmental documents related to a proposed freeway offramp and the tribe’s status.
The lawsuits, filed by the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors, are an attempt by the county to stop plans for construction of a 380,000-square-foot casino on the rancheria. The legal battle has cost the county approximately $600,000 in the last six months, according to Ed Knapp, county counsel.
Last week in Sacramento, District Court Judge Garland E. Burrell ruled in favor of the Miwoks on the portion of the federal lawsuit regarding the legitimacy of the tribe.
“I wasn’t worried about it,” tribal Chairman Nick Fonseca said following the decision. “We are a federally recognized tribe. Our relationship is with America. It was not for the county to question.”
Fonseca said the tribe has spent $25 million since it began plans for a 115-foot-tall casino, 250-room hotel and restaurant project to be located on 29 acres. This money has been spent on legal fees, environmental documents and land acquisition fees. The complex is to be financially backed by Lakes Entertainment Inc. out of Minnetonka, Minn.
Before the casino can be built the tribe must have access from Highway 50. The rancheria is currently landlocked and has been for years. The only existing road leading onto it is one that winds through a neighborhood, which is under strict regulations by the homeowners’ association. One restriction requires the tribe to ask permission for every commercial vehicle that drives onto the rancheria.
The proposed casino and offramp have caused a major rift between the county and the rancheria for close to a decade. It appears neither side is going to back down until the issues are settled in court.
Knapp said he believes the county will not give up on the tribal status issue.
“We’re now going to make a motion for reconsideration. We’re going to try to get a citizens’ group involved, to add a plaintiff,” he said.
Knapp said during court proceedings attorneys for the rancheria had argued that challenging tribal status had gone past the six-year statute of limitations since the tribe had been acknowledged in 1979 in the Federal Register.
At that time, with the proposal for a casino still more than a decade away, the county had no reason to look into the matter, according to Knapp.
“That was our argument. We had no reason to sue,” said Knapp, adding that the county believes members of the tribe are of mainly Hawaiian ancestry.
The statute of limitations was again considered during proceedings regarding when a gaming license was acquired. Rancheria attorneys argued the tribe had initially opened a tent-style casino six years ago and that was when the Miwoks got their first gaming license.
“The judge decided to go for the tent,” said Knapp.
Questioning the legitimacy of the tribe’s status was part of the case that was added on, Knapp said. The federal lawsuit and another with the state originally began because of objections to the environmental documents concerning the freeway offramp.
The final decision on the federal case could take six months, according to Tony Cowen, attorney for the tribe.
The tribe is also waiting to find out what will come of the state lawsuit, which suggests the environmental documents are not adequate for Caltrans to build freeway access onto the land.
Tribal Chairman Fonseca said the state court should reach its decision by Dec. 5.
“If we get a favorable decision, we can start the overpass,” he said, adding that the court can’t change Caltrans’ decision, but only point out the shortcomings in the environmental document. “If there are things we have to fix, we can do it.”
In the meantime, the tribe has continued to reach out to the public, offering donations to schools located on the Western Slope. So far only two have received funding – Indian Diggings Elementary School in Somerset and Herbert Green Middle School in Placerville. Two more schools have also contacted the tribe. The total amount the tribe set aside for schools is $50,000.
The way the funding works is the tribal council reviews educational programs submitted by each school, then votes whether to sponsor it. Indian Diggings received $4,000 for a Real Math Program.
“We’re really glad we’ve been given the opportunity,” said Rusty Vardy, teacher, principal and superintendent of Indian Diggings School District.
El Dorado Union High School District declined money, according to Elaine Whitehurst, government liaison and gaming commissioner for the Shingle Springs Rancheria. She said a district representative cited “politics” as their reason for not accepting.
In a letter to the rancheria, Jerry Smith, principal of El Dorado High School stated “… politics are playing a rather prominent role in your efforts to bring gaming to El Dorado County. I have been asked to hold off on accepting donations to my school site.”
On Oct. 24 and 25, more than 500 third- and fourth-graders from county schools attended a powwow celebrating California Cultural Days at the El Dorado County Fairgrounds put on by the El Dorado County Indian Council. The council includes the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, the El Dorado Band of Miwok Indians, members of the Washoe tribe and the Calaveras Band of Miwoks.
“We’re promoting awareness to strengthen the community,” said Joan Wicklund, co-chair of the council, explaining that the objective of the powwow is to allow the tribes to “teach kids history through the Native American perspective.”
Other actions by the rancheria and county have been not so pleasant.
The rancheria periodically has been placing full-page ads in an area newspaper citing how well “Indian gaming is working in California.” A recent letter to the newspaper allegedly from the Amador County Board of Supervisors states, “The Shingle Springs Band asserts that the Jackson Rancheria has contributed ‘more than $1.2 million for local government and non-government services.’ In 2003, Amador County and the Amador Fire Protection District cumulatively will receive only about $400,000 from the Jackson Rancheria.”
Whitehurst said these facts are not what she was told and she is looking into the allegations.
The South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce voted last week to give $3,000 to a citizens’ group to fight the casino, the same amount as last year. Duane Wallace, executive director, said according to the rancheria’s estimates a casino would take in $50 million a year, an amount he fears would come directly out of South Lake Tahoe revenues.
“The people backing the casino back East have a lot of money,” he said. “It’s hard for the county to compete.”
Knapp made it apparent the county is not going to allow lack of financing to end the battle.
“They’re doing their best to make it expensive for the county to fight them,” Knapp said. “It’s going to be an expensive battle. The county is committed to put up a fight.”
– Jo Rafferty may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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