U.S. still backs a Cowlitz casino

Judge declines to issue a delay despite a paperwork slip-up

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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After being denied a request to temporarily halt court proceedings, attorneys for the federal government went ahead and issued a revised opinion this week, reaffirming the Cowlitz Indian Tribe's right to establish a reservation in Clark County and build a casino.

Federal attorneys had acknowledged they never received key documents that had been submitted by local opponents to the tribe's proposal and asked for a delay to review the material.

U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts denied a request for a delay, however, and ordered the federal government to decide by Friday whether it wanted to proceed in defending itself in court or rescind the Bureau of Indian Affairs' 2010 decision.

Attorneys chose to proceed and met the deadline by filing a revised opinion. Attorneys wrote that they reviewed the documents that had been either lost or never received by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The documents, submitted by a plaintiff's attorney during the course of exchanging evidence, challenged the tribe's assertions that it had significant ties to land west of La Center.

Federal attorneys wrote that, despite those documents, they stand by the decision that the tribe has "significant historical connections," as required to take the land into trust.

The issue with the documents is part of a larger case being argued in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The 2010 Bureau of Indian Affairs decision was appealed by Clark County, the city of Vancouver, nearby property owners Al Alexanderson and Greg and Susan Gilbert; Dragonslayer Inc. and Michels Development, operators of the four La Center cardrooms; and Citizens Against Reservation Shopping, a group that includes Scott Campbell, publisher of The Columbian.

The plaintiffs challenge the timing of when the tribe was under federal jurisdiction and the tribe's ties to the parcel west of the Interstate 5 interchange in La Center. Plaintiffs also argue, and the defendants and the tribe deny, that the current plans have inadequate mitigation for stormwater, traffic, light and noise issues.

The defendants are the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Indian Gaming Commission.

Plans for the 152-acre Cowlitz site, made before the recession, call for a $510 million complex with 3,000 slot machines, 135 gaming tables, 20 poker tables and a 250-room hotel, plus an RV park, 10 restaurants and retail shops.

The Connecticut-based Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority partnered with Cowlitz tribal member and real estate developer David Barnett of Seattle on casino operation.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.