Decision favors Cowlitz Tribe's casino plans

Tribe still faces legal challenges to plans to build in La Center

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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The Cowlitz Indian Tribe has a new decision allowing it to take land into trust, but the tribe still faces legal challenges from local governments and residents.

According to Wednesday’s federal register, on April 22 the Bureau of Indian Affairs rescinded the 2010 Record of Decision and issued a new one. The new Record of Decision gives the tribe the go-ahead to take approximately 152 acres west of La Center into trust and use it for gaming purposes.

However, as of Wednesday afternoon, the new Record of Decision had yet to be published and neither the tribe’s chairman nor local attorneys had seen it.

Brent Boger, an assistant Vancouver city attorney, said Wednesday he would be contacting Washington, D.C., attorneys who have been assisting local plaintiffs to discuss how the case will proceed.

On March 13, a federal judge dealt the tribe a surprising blow when she threw out the 2010 Record of Decision, which was amended in 2012.

U.S. District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein gave the federal government 60 days to issue a new one.

Boger said that because Rothstein dismissed the case as moot, he’s not sure whether attorneys can go back to Rothstein and appeal the new Record of Decision, or whether a new lawsuit would have to be filed.

Cowlitz Chairman William Iyall said Wednesday that he’s eagerly awaiting the Record of Decision.

“It’s my expectation that it’s going to be a more thorough document this time,” Iyall said. “There were some procedural matters that weren’t addressed, and we’re expecting those will be addressed now.”

Iyall said he expects plaintiffs to appeal, and with the procedural concerns out of the way, “hopefully we can get to the merits of those issues.”

In 2012, the federal government issued a revised Record of Decision, acknowledging the 2010 Record of Decision was flawed because there were documents that had been either lost or never reviewed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The missing documents, which had been submitted by a plaintiff’s attorney during the course of exchanging evidence, had challenged the tribe’s assertions that it had significant ties to land west of La Center.

In her March ruling, Rothstein wrote that the government ran afoul of administrative procedures when it unilaterally changed the 2010 decision.

But by saying the federal government should not have been allowed to issue a 2012 Record of Decision, it left the government in a position to try and defend the 2010 Record of Decision, Rothstein wrote.

“The court will not waste its or the parties’ resources on such a fruitless endeavor,” Rothstein wrote. “The court is also cognizant of the fact that the parties have been locked in this battle for nearly 11 years.”

The tribe applied in 2002 to establish a 152-acre reservation west of La Center and put a $510 million casino-hotel complex on it.

The 2010 Record of 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.

Iyall said Wednesday the tribe still has an agreement with Connecticut-based Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority to build the complex.

He said plans have been scaled back because of the economy and, if the tribe eventually wins the legal battle, the complex would be built in phases over several years.

“We are in (economic) recovery mode,” Iyall said, “but much of the market for our product remains pretty much the same.” Iyall said the project would provide thousands of construction jobs and, when built, a few thousand family-wage jobs.

Original plans for the site include a casino 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 economy has been hard on casinos, including the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, however. In March, the Associated Press reported that the Mohegans are among tribes pursuing revenue through U.S. government grants in light of declining gambling revenues.

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