Feds: Tribe could get casino land as soon as January

Move puts pressure for action in stalled legal proceedings

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In a pivotal development in a yearslong fight to build a casino in Clark County, the Cowlitz Tribe was notified Wednesday they’ll receive 152 acres west of La Center in January or within 30 days of a federal court ruling in their favor, whichever comes first.

Tribal Chairman William Iyall issued a statement Thursday, saying, “We have pressed on for 12 years in an effort to fully service tribal members with services and programs only available on trust land. On Oct. 22, the federal government issued a notice of their intent to acquire our proposed 152-acre reservation in Clark County into trust for the Cowlitz Tribe, providing our people with the same opportunities as other federally recognized tribes. This is a significant moment in Cowlitz history.”

The case remains pending in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

Brent Boger, a Vancouver assistant city attorney, said he and other plaintiffs’ attorneys will likely ask the federal judge to order a stay, which would prevent the tribe from taking the land into trust until the case is settled. Wednesday’s development forces plaintiffs to put pressure on the federal judge to move the case along, Boger said.

Written arguments were filed months ago, but no court date has been set.

Sam Hirsch, an acting assistant attorney general, filed a notice Wednesday alerting the judge and plaintiffs that the Department of the Interior, one of the defendants in the case, “will acquire the approximately 151.87 acres of land in Clark County, Washington, in trust for the benefit of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe no sooner than the earlier of January 21, 2015, or thirty days after a court order granting summary judgment in favor of defendants.”

The parties completed a summary judgment briefing nearly nine months ago, Hirsch added.

Iyall said Thursday the tribe is preparing for the plaintiffs to appeal if the judge rules in the tribe’s favor, but he believes the fight is coming to an end. He said construction on the casino could start as soon as the beginning of 2016.

“We’ve waited too long for a decision,” he said. “So, I think that should happen fairly soon.”

For now, the tribe is in the process of hiring architects as it moves through the review process for a possible project to widen the Interstate 5 interchange at Exit 16, Iyall said.

The tribe is also working with La Center officials to contract the casino’s sewer services from the city.

While the federal case remains in limbo, the tribe cleared one regulatory hurdle with the state earlier this year.

In April, a tentative tribal-state compact was released by the state gambling commission.

The compact allows for two gaming facilities. One could have as many as 75 gaming tables, and a second could have up to 50 tables.

Initially, the wager limit would be set at $250, but after a year the limit could increase to $500.

The tribe could also have as many as 3,000 “tribal lottery player stations,” with as many as 2,500 in one facility.

Any terminals beyond the tribe’s allotted 975 terminals would have to be leased from other tribes, however.

In addition to the casino, the tribe intends to have space for shopping, dining and a 250-room hotel. The tribe plans to share more revenue with the surrounding cities than other casinos of its size in the state, Iyall said.

But La Center Mayor Jim Irish said Thursday that talks about revenue sharing died down long ago as the project was tied up in the court system. The city of La Center joined the federal lawsuit by filing an amicus (translation: friend of the court) brief in 2012 in order to give the judge the city’s perspective about land-use and water-quality issues raised by plaintiffs.

This week’s development hit the city at a hard time, as officials are working how to fill a $400,000-plus deficit — nearly 10 percent of the city’s budget for next year — stemming from the closure of a cardroom.

Boger said plaintiffs’ attorneys will schedule a conference call soon to discuss what move they should make.

Even if the federal judge makes a ruling, the decision is likely to be appealed, as the case stands to be a test case of a 2009 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In that ruling, known as Carcieri, the high court said the government can put land into trust only for tribes that were under federal jurisdiction in 1934.

The Cowlitz were federally recognized in 2000; that ruling was challenged and reaffirmed in 2002.

That year, the tribe applied to take the land into trust. A Record of Decision was issued in 2010 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and appealed by the city of Vancouver, Clark County and other plaintiffs, who challenged, among other things, the federal ruling that the landless tribe has historical ties to the proposed reservation.

In March 2013, a federal judge threw out that 2010 Record of Decision, and a new one was issued and appealed.

The tribe’s lands and tribal offices are 24 miles north of the proposed casino site, plaintiffs argue, and “most tribal property is even farther away.”

“The casino parcel is a short 16-mile drive from Portland, Oregon, providing easy access to the Portland gaming market,” plaintiffs argue.

Plaintiffs also argue, and the defendants deny, that current plans have inadequate mitigation for stormwater, traffic, light and noise issues.

The list of plaintiffs includes nearby property owners Al Alexanderson and Greg and Susan Gilbert; Citizens Against Reservation Shopping, a group that includes Scott Campbell, publisher of The Columbian; Oregon Dragonslayer Inc. and Michels Development, operators of La Center cardrooms; and the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, which operates Spirit Mountain Casino and draws players from the Vancouver-Portland area.