Casino complicating access to road home, nearby residents say

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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RIDGEFIELD — When the much-anticipated Ilani Casino Resort opened in the spring, traffic was backed up for miles with visitors eager to check out the new venue.

Months later, the casino doesn’t draw quite the same number of visitors, but people who live nearby have complained that when the venue holds large events, they’ve been denied access to Northwest 319th Street, which they rely on to get home.

Although Clark County and the Cowlitz Tribe are working with residents on the issue, residents remain worried that the casino’s plans for a gas station, hotel and other additions will just make the situation even harder to manage.

“Our road concerns have significantly increased,” said William Horn, who lives near the casino, during the public comment period at a recent county council meeting.

During the meeting, he and other residents complained that when the casino has been particularly busy, sheriff’s deputies have turned them away from using the street. He said that he and other residents have met with casino management who he said have taken their concerns seriously. But he said he remains worried.

“Our main concern is not the 9-mile traffic backup on opening day of the casino,” said Sally Jo Snyder, who lives near the casino. “It’s about the continued road closures since, restricting access to our homes due to traffic coming into the casino.”

She told the council that she had been stopped four times on the road. She said that during the 19 years her family has lived at their house, the road had never been closed before, she had never been stopped before and she had never been questioned before while trying to get home.

Deborah Draper also told the council that she has major concerns about emergency vehicles getting through when the road is closed. She said that she was also told to use Northwest Allen Canyon Road, a narrow nearby road that she said washes out and was closed during the winter.

“That is not a viable option,” she said.

Casino, city respond

Casino spokeswoman Stephanie Celenza wrote in an email that they haven’t had any recent issues regarding Northwest 319th Street. But she added that the casino has worked with the city of Ridgefield to provide residents with rearview mirror tags that will allow them to be waived through when there are traffic issues.

During a recent county council board time meeting, Chris Horne, chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney, explained that when the casino has a large event, the access to the roundabout on the street has been blocked and cars back up onto Interstate 5, creating a safety hazard.

Steve Stuart, Ridgefield city manager, said that the Cowlitz Indian Tribe dropped off the tags, which can be picked up by affected residents, at the Ridgefield Police Department.

“Our goal is to make sure that we are coordinating with the tribe and Ilani as much as possible,” he said.

However, Snyder, speaking during the council’s public comment, said, “While the passes were a nice gesture, they are not a solution.” She said that the casino’s plans to grow will make the problem worse.

County’s options

Horne, during a board time meeting, outlined the county’s options. He explained that the tribe has built a private road that runs parallel to Northwest 319th Street called Cowlitz Way. He said that the county could negotiate with the tribe to dedicate Cowlitz Way as a public road. He also said the county could extend Northwest 41st Avenue so there would be an alternative public road for residents.

According to County Councilor Julie Olson, whose district includes the casino, the county is working with the tribe and residents to make sure that they have direct access to their homes at all times.

While walking along the road to her house, which overlooks the casino, Debby Wallachy said that traffic problems have gotten better. But she said she’s been stopped along the road and wants a permanent solution.

“We need our access road back,” she said.