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Tribe walks fine line between gaming and community

Nicholas Fonseca’s office smells.

It’s not an unpleasant odor, however, that wafts into the hallway at the Shingle Springs Rancheria Tribal Center. Fonseca had just picked a bunch of wormwood leaves in the hills, and placed them on his desk as he returned from his lunch break.

“There are a lot of plants which grow around here, which the native people have used for holistic purposes for hundreds of years,” said Fonseca, the Community Development Officer at the Rancheria – which is a reservation inhabited by the Varona Band of Miwok Indians.



“It’s all spiritual stuff. Wormwood is hard to find. You just have to know where to look.”

The same can be said of the Rancheria itself. Thousands of people drive by on U.S. Highway 50 every day, the majority unaware of the 160-acre parcel of land off of the highway which is home to 55 members of the Varona Band – including 26 families.




In a way, the tribe lives on an island. The land surrounding the reservation consists of upscale ranch homes with landscaped yards. But as you drive into the reservation, the scene suddenly changes. The homes are modest, for the most part, signifying a simple way of life.

The Varona Band, in fact, might have remained virtually anonymous if not for an issue which has served to divide this community nestled in the Sierra foothills between Placerville and Shingle Springs. That issue, in a word, is gaming.

In 1982, congress passed the IGRA bill – which gave Native American tribes the right to run gaming operations on their reservation land. The Varona Band, however, could not take advantage of the new law due to the fact that their reservation is landlocked – that is, there is no direct access to U.S. Highway 50.

But there is indirect access. The Grassy Run subdivision was developed in 1976 on 400 acres adjacent to the reservation. At the time there was virtually no one living on the reservation, as it did not have running water or electricity until 1989. Today there are 73 homes on Grassy Run, most of them connected by Grassy Run Road – a narrow, winding road which also connects to the reservation.

In the early 1980s, the Grassy Run Homeowners Association entered into an agreement in which the Varona Band would be allowed to use Grassy Run Road to access their reservation. Things were relatively peaceful until 1996, when the growing reservation community announced plans to construct a casino on its property. The Grassy Run Homeowners Association then mobilized to stop the project, and an uneasy co-existence has remained between the two communities ever since.

“We opposed (the casino) for health and safety reasons,” said Penny Le Doux, the president of the Grassy Run Homeowners Association. “In order to access the casino, patrons would have to use (Grassy Run Road). It’s a one-lane, rural road, which in some places is only 14 feet wide. There were many concerns, but the big one involves getting emergency vehicles in and out if there were a fire. And how would the patrons get out?”

For the Varona Band, however, the issue is bigger than roads and boundaries.

“The tribe sees the casino issue as being directly related to their sovereignty and their prosperity,” said Dick Moody, the Shingle Springs Rancheria Government Relations Officer. “Employment opportunities mean growth, and in the future, employment here will be directly or indirectly connected to the new casino.”

The casino in question is a proposed 110,000 square-foot structure which will include a 300-room hotel/convention center. The project will provide hundreds of jobs on the reservation – both in the casino and hotel itself and in related services.

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 Mountain Card Club, operated only temporarily – its longest continuous time of operation being only four months in 1997. It is now abandoned.

“That structure was used as a feasibility study,” Moody said. “Some see it as an eyesore, and we will be removing it in the spirit of cooperation.”

Last year a federal court ruled that Greenstone Road is indeed a private Road. The Varona Band could use it to access their property, but with restrictions (such as no commercial traffic after 2:30 p.m.). The agreement precluded the heavy traffic such as sewage and delivery trucks which would be needed if a large casino were in operation.

But the tribe has other options. The Varona Band borrowed $4 million to purchase nine parcels to the east of the reservation, on which a road could be constructed to link to U.S. Highway 50. This would, however, run traffic through Grassy Run.

Another option would be for the tribe to build their casino elsewhere in the county as part of a government-approved land swap. That scenario is currently being studied.

“The best option would be for us to get a slip ramp right off the highway,” Moody said.

All the separates the reservation from U.S. Highway 50 is a small strip of land in front of the old casino tent. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had an opportunity to buy the land in 1982 for $4,000 – but deemed it too expensive.

“That was a breech of trust,” Moody said. “We are the only landlocked reservation in the country. It’s not right.”


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