DC Judge OKs Planned|Central Calif. Indian Casino

     (CN) — A federal judge on Tuesday rejected challenges to the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians’ proposed casino, raised by community groups and a rival gaming tribe who have been fighting the project for years.
     In a 170-page decision, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell dismissed a handful of arguments brought by the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians and citizen group Stand Up For California in a consolidated lawsuit seeking to halt development of the casino.
     “While the plaintiffs’ many concerns about the impending casino development are understandable, the law is not on their side,” Howell said.
     Cheryl Schmit, director of plaintiff Stand Up for California, said they are disappointed in the court’s decision, but resolved to continue their opposition to the casino.
     “The people of California have spoken loudly that they are behind us in this effort. Our attorneys are still evaluating the issues in this very lengthy judicial opinion, and we intend to appeal,” she said.
     Unless the appeal is successful, Howell’s decision removes one of the biggest obstacles to the tribe’s venture to build a casino-resort complex, planned to include up to 2,500 games, six bars, three restaurants, a food court, a 200-room hotel tower, and 4,500 parking spaces on a 305-acre parcel of land in the Madera County foothills near Yosemite National Forest in California.
     North Fork Rancheria’s project is expected to create 750 temporary construction jobs and employ up to 1,500 people full-time.
     “The casino will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the people and the land in that county, with the hope that it will benefit economically the Indian tribe undertaking its development,” Howell said.
     The controversy over the proposed casino has spanned more than a decade, beginning with the North Fork Rancheria’s formal application in 2005 to have the Madera site taken into trust by the Interior Department.
     “To stop the casino from coming to fruition, [opponents] have initiated both state and federal litigation as well as statewide political efforts over the last seven-plus years, setting, in their own words, ‘high legal and political hurdles,'” Howell said.
     The tribal headquarters of the North Fork Rancheria is in the foothills approximately 36 miles east of the site purchased by the tribe for the development of the casino.
     Howell rejected arguments that the tribe lacks a significant historical connection to the Madera site, finding that tribal members have consistently worked and shopped near the site for the last 100 years.
     She also found that the Secretary of the Interior, when approving the tribe’s proposed gaming operation, properly considered both the detriments and the benefits expected to be derived from the casino.
     “(T)he secretary acknowledged the negative impacts that the proposed casino would have on the surrounding community and determined that these negative impacts would not be, overall, ‘detrimental to the surrounding community’,” Howell said.
     The secretary was not required to consider the Picayune tribe’s concerns that the casino would be detrimental to its own gaming operation, the judge said, noting that the Picayune tribe is located 39 miles away from the proposed site and is therefore not a “nearby Indian tribe” nor part of the “surrounding community.”
     Nonetheless, the secretary did make a specific finding regarding the rival tribe and concluded that competition from North Fork’s future casino in an overlapping gaming market was not sufficient on its own to be considered a detrimental impact to Picayune.
     Although Picayune questioned a third-party’s estimate that the tribe would only suffer a 19 percent loss of revenues due to the new casino, the tribe offered no alternative analysis to show that its Chukchansi Gold Casino would be put out of business or face any other destructive competitive impact, Howell said.
     The secretary also properly concluded that potential negative impacts of the proposed casino on the surrounding community — including increased traffic and loss of wildlife habitat — would be mitigated, the judge said.
     For traffic and transportation impacts, mitigation measures include six shuttles daily to major transit stations, transit amenities such as bus turnouts and shelter benches, and the widening of numerous roads.
     To protect the Swainson hawk, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be consulted about active nests. Impacts within 10 miles of any nest site will lead to the site being protected or a new foraging habitat will be created within a 10-mile radius.
     Overall, the secretary’s conclusion that all identified impacts can be adequately mitigated was reasonable, Howell said.
     Casino opponents were also unable to convince the judge that mitigation measures planned for the impacts of problem gambling would not be adequate.
     The final environmental impact statement for the project found, based on a study of gambling in California, that the casino would increase the number of adult problem gamblers in Madera County by 531. The total population of the county is nearly 151,000.
     North Fork agreed to contribute $50,000 per year to the county for professional treatment for problem gamblers, and is also expected to make annual contributions of $1.1 million to four foundations to fund various county services — including one for behavioral health, Howell noted.     
     North Fork Tribal chairwoman Maryann McGovran said the tribe is delighted with the ruling.     
     “After finally overcoming so many legal and political challenges, we are ready to start developing our project so that we can bring jobs and economic opportunity to our tribal members, the community and this region,” she said.

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