La Center files casino brief

City says it's not taking sides, but offering insight

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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While the federal lawsuit challenging a proposed reservation and casino in Clark County has lived up to expectations that it will at least stall the project for years, the city of La Center has stepped up and filed a brief to give the judge its perspective.

Also, plaintiffs — which include Clark County and the city of Vancouver — have asked U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts to throw out a revised decision reaffirming the tribe's right to take land into trust and establish a reservation west of La Center.

January will mark two years since the lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

A date for oral arguments has yet to be set.

In the city of La Center's brief, filed Oct. 5, the city sets out to clarify land-use and water-quality issues raised by plaintiffs.

The "amicus curiae" (translation: friend of the court) brief was meant to be neutral, as opposed to a brief that would have been filed on behalf of the tribe.

"The main reason we filed the amicus brief was to let the court know about the issues facing the city of La Center," Mayor Jim Irish said Tuesday. "We are neither for nor against either party."

Attorneys for La Center wrote that as the closest local government to the proposed reservation, the city "has long been involved in the federal administrative processes that led to the proposed reservation and offers in this brief certain facts surrounding land use and wastewater issues that may assist this Court," wrote attorneys Jody Cummings of Washington, D.C. and Karl Anuta of Portland.

The reservation would be west of Interstate 5, in what's currently unincorporated Clark County. In September 2011, the city annexed all the way out to the reservation, including the I-5 right of way.

"Thus, any development of a casino, hotel, retail complex or any other venues on the proposed reservation likely will affect the city significantly," attorneys wrote.

If built, the city would likely have to manage the wastewater from the reservation, they added.

The city and the tribe even had a sewer service agreement, which was rescinded after it was struck down by the Western Washington Growth Management Hearing Board as being in conflict with the city's comprehensive plan. The city is working on a new agreement to present to the tribe, attorneys wrote.

Attorneys also told the judge the city has plans to protect the East Fork of the Lewis River, which has had "significant pollution issues," from future developments by having waste from the proposed reservation go to the city's treatment plan rather than "some less sophisticated facility should help prevent further sewage-related water quality degradation on the East Fork."

Plaintiffs, in addition to challenge the timing of when the tribe was under federal jurisdiction and the tribe's ties to the land, argue the tribe's plans raise environmental concerns.

"The proposed reservation currently abuts the city limits of the city of La Center. The city has recognized that it potentially has an important role to play, if the proposed reservation is upheld. That role would potentially benefit the city, the tribe, and the East Fork of the Lewis River," attorneys for La Center wrote. "The city believes it is important for the court to consider the information presented in this brief, and hopes that this information is helpful to the court's understanding of the issues."

The December 2010 Bureau of Indian Affairs decision was appealed in January 2011 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 defendants are the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Indian Gaming Commission. The tribe filed as an intervenor-defendant.

The 2010 decision was recently rescinded after the federal government acknowledged it 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. With the reissued opinion, 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.

On Oct. 12, plaintiffs asked to have that reissued opinion thrown out.

"The notion that an agency can 'incorporate' a 2012 explanation into a 2010 (decision) by characterizing it as a 'Supplemental Record of Decision' — without undergoing the processes that apply to federal decision-making — is absurd," plaintiffs' attorneys wrote.

They argue the defendants should have to either continue to justify the original decision, or withdraw it and start the trust process over.

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.