12TH SEP 2016 | WRITTEN BY: CHRIS SIEROTY
A federal judge in Washington, D.C. has rejected a wide-ranging legal challenge to the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians’ casino, clearing what could be the last road block placed in front of the development just north of Madera in central California.
In her 170-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell dismissed a number of the arguments raised by casino opponents, who have been trying to block the project for more than seven years.
“While the plaintiffs’ many concerns about the impending casino development are understandable, the law is not on their side,” Howell wrote.
The lawsuit was brought by Stand Up for California, several Madera-area church related groups and thePicayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, whose members operate their own casino — Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino – some 31 miles from Madera.
“To stop the casino from coming to fruition, [opponents] have initiated both state and federal litigation as well as state-wide political efforts over the past seven-plus years, setting in their own words, ‘high legal and political hurdles,’” Howell wrote.
She added that “this case is one of those efforts to halt the North Fork tribe’s casino developments.”
Howell’s decision could clear the way for the tribe to build a casino and resort on 305-acres with “2,500 gaming devices, six bars, three restaurants, a five-tenant food court, a 200-rooom hotel, and 4,500 parking spaces.”
“The casino will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the people and the land in that county, with the hope that it will benefit economically the Indian tribe undertaking its development,” Howell wrote.
As of Friday, no appeal had been filed.
Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up California, told GamblingCompliance they intend to appeal the judge’s ruling.
“We are disappointed by the court’s result, but are determined to continue our opposition to this casino and the expansion of gambling to other off-reservation areas,” Schmit said. “ The people of California have spoken loudly that they are behind us in this effort. Our attorneys are still evaluating the issues in this very lengthy judicial opinion, and we intend to appeal.”
Charles Altekruse, a spokesman for the North Fork Rancheria, said the tribe prevailed on all six claims filed by opponents challenging the gaming project.
Stand Up for California and other opponents of the North Fork casino challenged multiple federal decisions, going back to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s September 2011 approval of the tribe’s casino plans.
The legal challenges dismissed Tuesday were initially filed in 2012. The lawsuit was the biggest hurdle to the tribe building its casino on land some seven miles north of Madera.
Howell rejected the Picayune tribe’s argument that the North Fork Rancheria lack any historical connection to the Madera County land. In her ruling, Howell cited the “historical record,” which includes a treaty in 1851.
Howell also upheld the Interior Department’s conclusion that any “negative impacts” from the casino development “would not be, overall, detrimental to the surrounding community.”
Chairwoman Maryann McGovern said the tribe was “delighted and satisfied” with the court’s ruling.
“After finally overcoming so many legal and political challenges, we are ready to start developing our project so that we can bring jobs and economic opportunity to our tribal members, the community and this region,” McGovern said in a statement.
The Interior Department on August 1 approved a federal gaming compact with the North Fork Rancheria.
Several lawsuits are pending, but Howell’s ruling also puts an end to the questions surrounding the federal government’s authority to put the off-reservation land into trust for the tribe’s casino project.
The compact was opposed by the Chukchansi tribe, which have filed lawsuits trying to stop it and the casino project.
In 2012, Governor Jerry Brown approved a compact with the North Fork tribe that included revenue sharing payments estimated at $3m to $5m annually with other non-gaming tribes.
Under the compact, the Chukchansi tribe would get money from the North Fork tribe to compensate for casino revenue losses. Chukchansi officials have argued North Fork’s casino would reduce its revenue by 38 percent.
However, in 2014 California voters rejected the compact by voting down Proposition 48 -61 percent to 48 percent. In November 2015, North Fork’s casino proposal was saved when a federal judge ordered that the compact be sent to a mediator.
In February, the mediator selected the tribe’s compact over Governor Brown’s. Brown did not ratify the compact supported by the mediator, which left approval up to the Interior Department.
Tribal gaming is big business in the United States, especially in California.
According to financial data compiled by GamblingCompliance, California and northern Nevada was the fastest growing region in 2015, adding three casinos and $601.9m in revenue, with total gross gaming revenue of $7.9bn.