La Center repeals sewer agreement with Cowlitz Tribe

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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The La Center City Council has rescinded its $14 million sewer agreement with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, in the wake of a state board’s decision to allow the city’s four card rooms to appeal the deal, city officials said.

La Center officials viewed the 6-month-old pact as a way to pay off millions of dollars in wastewater treatment facility-related debt and provide sewer lines to 471 acres of recently added real estate up to the Interstate 5 junction. Likewise, the agreement would have provided the tribe’s 3,700 residents and proposed casino with sewer services.

Work on the sewer lines was contingent on a federal court’s upcoming ruling on whether the tribe could use 152 acres of federal land to build a casino.

The Growth Management Hearings Board’s decision to allow the cardrooms’ appeal signaled the city was fighting a battle it could not win, La Center city attorney Dan Kearns said. The board’s decision came as a surprise, Kearns said, and required an emergency resolution at the May 9 council meeting.

The council learned the item would be discussed when they arrived for that night’s meeting. They voted 5-0 to rescind the agreement. Fighting the appeal would have resulted in several years of litigation and tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer dollars, Kearns said Tuesday.

The tribe must rescind its portion of the agreement, but that is all but a formality following the La Center council’s unanimous vote one week ago.

“This was a big deal, a big loss for the city,” Kearns said.

The cardrooms appealed the sewer agreement on the basis that La Center would be extending its sewer service past its Urban Growth Area, thus countering the Growth Management Act and the city’s own Comprehensive Plan policy. Vancouver-based consultant John Bockmier, who represents the La Center cardrooms, did not return phone calls Tuesday.

Kearns said he decided after a conversation on May 8 with an attorney with Perkins Coie, a Seattle-based firm representing the cardrooms, that forcing them to file another legal brief in the case would accomplish nothing. He informed the council during his attorney’s report the next night that rescinding the resolution would be its best course of action. A 50-minute closed-door meeting for “threatened or pending litigation” followed later in the meeting.

La Center Mayor Jim Irish did not return calls Tuesday. He was out of town, city employees said.