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News / Clark County News

Clark County, others ask judge to halt casino construction until appeal is heard

Work on project began in January near La Center

By Amy Fischer, Columbian City Government Reporter
Published: March 3, 2016, 5:43pm

Clark County and other appellants in an ongoing lawsuit against the Cowlitz Indian Tribe have asked a federal judge to order a halt to construction of the tribe’s casino-resort outside of La Center until their appeal is heard in federal court.

Work on the $510 million project began in January, and now the casino’s walls are rising on the Cowlitz Reservation along Interstate 5 at Exit 16. The facility is slated to open next year.

The motion, filed Thursday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, seeks to stop construction until the court rules on the group’s appeal of a judge’s dismissal of the lawsuit. If the court doesn’t grant the injunction, the appellants are asking the court to hasten its ruling. The appeal is scheduled to be argued orally March 18 in federal court in Washington D.C.

The appellants include the city of Vancouver, Clark County, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, Citizens Against Reservation Shopping — a group that includes Columbian Publisher Scott Campbell — and the owners and operators of La Center’s cardrooms. They have not requested an injunction to block the casino’s construction until now. The city of Vancouver is not part of Thursday’s motion because it’s not immediately impacted by the tribe’s construction, according to court documents.

Christine Cook, Clark County senior deputy prosecuting attorney, said Thursday the appellants filed the motion because the Cowlitz have “moved extremely aggressively and rapidly to construct the facility … and it appears that what they’re trying to do is to get everything as much built as possible as they can before the court rules.”

Here’s what the case is about: The federal government officially recognized the Cowlitz Indian Tribe in 2000, and in 2010, the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved an application to take 152 acres of land into trust for a new Cowlitz reservation. That prompted several groups that don’t want a casino built to sue the Cowlitz in federal court because they question the Cowlitz peoples’ ties to the area. They believe the tribe is interested in the property only for its proximity to Portland and its bettors, just 16 miles to the south.

The group is appealing District Court Judge Barbara J. Rothstein’s decision in December 2014 to dismiss the lawsuit and reaffirm the federal government’s decision to take the land into trust for the Cowlitz Tribe. In her 57-page ruling, Rothstein wrote that the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 gives the secretary of the interior the authority to take land into trust for a reservation. She also rejected arguments that the tribe’s current plans inadequately mitigate stormwater, traffic, light and noise issues, and that a supplemental environmental impact study needs to be completed.

The judge also addressed the 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as Carcieri, in which the high court said the government can put land into trust only for tribes that were under federal jurisdiction in 1934. Rothstein thought the wording of the statute was ambiguous and, therefore, she would defer to the secretary of the interior.

On Thursday, Cook said the county’s concern is that once the casino’s construction has progressed significantly, “it’s going to be difficult to unring the bell.”

Also, she said, the county is particularly worried about the Cowlitz’s plan for a sewage disposal system that uses injection wells to pump treated wastewater underground above the aquifer that supplies 99 percent of the county’s drinking water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency informed the county Feb. 22 that it had approved the injection well plan, court documents say.

“In light of that information surfacing and the speed with which they’re moving on the construction, it seemed appropriate to go forward (with seeking an injunction),” Cook said.

Cowlitz Tribe Chairman Bill Iyall said Thursday the tribe was “disappointed” by Clark County’s decision to file a request for emergency injunctive relief in an effort to stop work on the casino.

“If granted, the request for an injunction would have far-reaching implications for one of the largest economic development projects in Clark County history,” Iyall stated in an email. “The work stoppage will force our partners to halt construction operations, lay off nearly 80 percent of the 150 employees currently working on the reservation, and potentially delay the opening of the facility, home to over 1,200 new jobs in Clark County beginning spring 2017.”

The tribe remains committed to working with federal, state and local entities and the community “to bring economic and job growth, environmental sustainability and long-term transportation improvement to Clark County,” Iyall stated. “We want to partner with our county councilors, and stand ready to offer clarity and mutually beneficial resolutions to their concerns regarding the development of the Cowlitz project.”

In their motion, the plaintiffs said “any injury to the tribe from an injunction would be … self-inflicted” because its decision to build as much of the casino as possible before the court rules is a “calculated risk — one that also appears intended to undercut the court’s review and limit available remedies.”

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Columbian City Government Reporter