Concerns Grow With Indian Casinos
In the course of only a few years, Indian casinos have grown into a major land use concern for counties across California. But now a matter that has been a land use issue mostly in rural areas is coming to urban areas, as tribes look for casino sites near population centers and as some public officials start to view the casinos as economic opportunities.
What might be the largest Indian casino in California — the United Auburn Indian Community's Thunder Valley Casino — opened in June in unincorporated Placer County, on the northeast edge of metropolitan Sacramento. Two tribes are seeking to open casinos along the Interstate 80 corridor in Contra Costa County. A newly recognized tribe that was looking at a site between Vallejo and Novato in the Bay Area might be headed to Rohnert Park. Casinos or expansions are at least in the discussion stages within the city limits of San Bernardino, Palm Springs and Barstow. And some small cities in more rural areas, including Cloverdale, Yreka and Blythe, are wrestling with casino proposals just inside, or barely outside, the city limits.
Urban projects come despite Governor Gray Davis's stated opposition to Indian casinos in urban areas and despite the fact that the tribes might have little or no historical claim to the sites.
While the impacts of most Indian casinos often are similar — traffic, crime, noise, and the potential for inducing growth — tribes themselves are proving very different in the ways they interact with local government.
Some tribes have done as much as the next developer to mitigate impacts, and, in a few cases, tribes have agreed to pay tens of millions of dollars to local agencies and even neighbors. Other tribes have ignored local government officials and their neighbors. A major factor, however, is the way the county government and other public agencies treat the tribe and its development.
"The relationship between you and the tribe is critical," said Yolo County Supervisor Michael McGowan, who helped his county reach an agreement with the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians regarding plans to expand the Cache Creek Casino. "You have to get away from us versus them or you're going to have a long, hard time."
Relationships are important because tribes are sovereign governments with no legal obligations to California's counties, cities and special districts. Plus, McGowan and the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) complain that the state and federal governments, which have greater legal leverage with the tribes, have shown little willingness to back up local concerns regarding Indian casinos.
Still, it is nearly impossible to determine why some counties have good relationships with tribes and other counties do not, said DeAnn Baker, a legislative analyst for CSAC. "It really depends on the tribe and what they need," she said.
California is home to far more Indian tribes (108) and Indian casinos (52) than any other state. State voters approved of gambling on Indian reservations in 1998. When the state Supreme Court threw out the 1998 initiative, the tribes returned with Proposition 1A, which voters approved nearly 2-to-1 in March 2000. And every indicator points toward casino growth. Dozens of new casinos are being planned, and scores of tribes are seeking federal recognition — the first step toward opening a casino.
In January, Gov. Davis announced he wanted to reopen the 58 compacts he signed with tribes in September 1999 and the three compacts signed since then. The governor has stated two major goals for the renegotiations: Getting the tribes to share their revenues with the state, and ensuring that tribes comply with environmental regulations, in part by giving counties and cities a greater role in the development of tribal facilities.
The state's negotiators — former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, retired San Diego County Superior Court Judge Anthony Joseph and San Francisco lawyer Frederick Wyle — have sought and received extensive input from county supervisors, sheriffs, district attorneys and other local officials, said Davis spokeswoman Amber Pasricha. "It's very important to understand the ways that cities and counties and tribes are interacting," she said.
Counties believe the compacts need to be reworked. Earlier this year, CSAC passed a resolution that, among other things, urges that tribes be required to:
• Get local government approval to construct off-reservation improvements.
• Comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), with the tribe serving as the lead agency.
• Allow local law enforcement, fire officials, and health and safety inspectors to gain jurisdiction over casinos and related businesses.
• Pay fees and taxes equal to what a typical commercial operation would pay.
• Sign judicially enforceable agreements with local jurisdictions.
"The rules must change," Yolo County Supervisor McGowan said. "Counties and cities need to have a requirement that they and tribes be required to sit down and address impacts and reach an agreement that is enforceable in court."
The counties' concerns grow as tribes develop Vegas-style "destinations" that include casinos, hotels, restaurants, retail centers, golf courses and concert venues.
The tribes, however, say they have no obligation to renegotiate 20-year compacts. Each compact is an individual agreement between the state and the tribe, said Sandy Jensen, spokeswoman for the California Nations Indian Gaming Association. The two sides can mutually agree to reopen a compact, or the state can demand to reopen a compact if the state can prove that a tribe has not made a good faith effort to mitigate the environmental impacts of its development, she said. Tribes can seek to reopen compacts to increase the number of slot machines, which now are limited to 2,000 per tribe.
Some tribes are willing to talk because they want more slot machines. Other tribes are satisfied with the current limit and, because they have no environmental issues, they are not coming to the table, Jensen said.
The governor announced his intention in January, but Pasricha said talks are still in the early stages. "It's been a slow process," she said in June.
The county experience
San Diego County probably has more experience dealing with Indian tribes than any county in the United States. The county has a full-time tribal liaison and has undertaken an extensive study of the county's 17 tribes, 18 reservations and 8 casinos.
San Diego County's first study, produced in November 2000, was presented solely from a CEQA point of view. The report was poorly received because CEQA does not apply to the tribes and because the tribes had no input, said Chantal Saipe, the county's tribal liaison. She updated that report in 2001, but the tribes did not accept it any better. So she changed her approach. The latest version of the report, released in April, begins with a brief history of each tribe and explanation of each tribe's needs, resources and, where applicable, reasons for pursuing gaming. The report then discusses the benefits and negative consequences of each casino. Each tribe had ample opportunity to participate in the report's preparation. This round, the tribes accepted the report better, Saipe said.
"One of the purposes was to establish a respectful dialogue with the tribes. I think the report went a long way toward that," Saipe said.
In her staff report that accompanied the report, Saipe wrote, "The two most significant and easily quantifiable impacts [of casinos] … relate to traffic and law enforcement. However, the report places these impacts in context by showing that until gaming, tribes had been unable to establish an economic base to fulfill their governmental responsibilities; the tribes have no other options but to develop gaming and other facilities on their existing tribal lands; and tribal development is occurring at a time when the county, after over a century of development, is trying to control development in the backcountry."
The report identified $150 million in road improvements needed in the vicinity of reservations with casinos. But the report found that only $24 million worth of those needed upgrades were the result of casinos. Three of the eight tribes with casinos have signed agreements with the county to mitigate all casino-related traffic impacts, and two tribes have agreed to offset some of their traffic impacts. Saipe said the county needs to work out additional agreements. However, she noted, making improvements to these backcountry roads is counter to the county's proposed general plan, which discourages growth in most rural areas.
Law enforcement issues have proven even stickier, and only two tribes have signed agreements with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department for reservation-related public safety.
San Diego County learned that an authoritarian approach got the county nowhere, Saipe said. Tribes deal with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the state before pursuing a casino. The tribes do not want resistance from local officials at the end of the process, said Saipe, who has found that most tribes are willing to work with the county.
"Each region, each county has unique circumstances, unique history and has different challenges in working with the tribes," said Saipe, who pointed out that the tribes are as new to casino development as the county.
In Yolo County, officials initially were upset by the Rumsey Band's proposal to triple the size of its casino in the remote Capay Valley. County officials sought help from state officials regarding environmental issues, but the county learned it was on its own — and that it had no legal recourse with the tribe, McGowan said. Still, the tribe and the county were able to work out an agreement. The tribes can build a smaller-than-proposed casino expansion and the county at some point in the future will process an application for a golf course on non-tribal land. In exchange, the tribe agreed to pay about $80 million over 18 years to the county and neighboring property owners.
"We were fortunate in that the tribe we are dealing with are eons-long residents of that particular area. That's their home. They have great feeling for it," McGowan said. He sees the agreement as a starting point. Both the county's and the tribe's needs will evolve, and McGowan said he is confident both sides will do what is necessary.
The fact that Yolo and other counties dealing with Indian casinos have failed to get assistance from Sacramento is not surprising.
"The tribes, collectively, have become the biggest campaign contributors in the state," said Jim Knox, executive director of Common Cause in California. "They emerged out of nowhere really in the 1998 election to become major contributors, and they have major support at the Capitol."
Exactly how much the tribes give to political candidates and causes is unknown because some tribes do not disclose their election activity. Whether the tribes are subject to state election law is an issue the Fair Political Practices Commission is litigating. Knox said a 2000 Common Cause report on Indian election activity took two years to compile because tribes either did not file donor reports or submitted incomplete reports.
While many local governments are hostile to Indian casinos — El Dorado County, for example, has allocated $300,000 for its legal fight against a casino proposed near Shingle Springs — some local governments look favorably on the jobs and revenues casinos provide. Early this year, the City of Richmond commissioned a consultant to examine a waterfront casino and hotel proposed by the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians. Richmond officials have talked about the jobs and revenue the project could bring to their working-class community. Yuba County officials took less than six months last year to work out an agreement with the Enterprise Rancheria, which proposes building a hotel and casino next to an existing concert amphitheater just south of Marysville. A race track proposed for the site has stalled, and county officials see the casino and hotel as possibly an even better economic engine than the track. In June, Rohnert Park officials began seriously considering asking the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria to build a casino in the city, rather than on a sensitive site between Vallejo and Novato.
The experience of West Sacramento, however, points to just how tricky the issues are. In November 2002, the West Sacramento City Council approved an agreement with the Upper Lake Tribe of Pomo Indians regarding a proposed hotel and casino just off Interstate 80. Backers of the agreement suggested that the casino was coming anyway, so the city should ensure the city benefited. But a divided City Council reversed itself after a referendum on the agreement quickly gained enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. And in February, a federal judge blocked the Upper Lake Tribe's effort to have the federal government take the land into trust for the Indians.
The casino proposals in more urban areas amount to "a land grab," contended Cheryl Schmit, director of the Indian gambling watchdog group Stand Up for California. The tribes typically have no historical links to the urban areas, and the tribes often ask the federal government to accept the land so that the tribe can build things like health centers and tribal officers, she said. And while health facilities might get built, it is a casino the tribe is after.
Local officials who support these efforts "are being misinformed and they are being duped by the investors," Schmit charged.
Not all urban area officials have open arms for the casinos, though. Placer County officials reached an agreement addressing roads and public safety with the United Auburn Indian Community only after realizing the county could not stop the Thunder Valley Casino. The neighboring cities of Roseville and Rocklin joined a lawsuit to halt the casino, which the tribe successfully defended in federal district court.
However, even the huge Thunder Valley facility — which features 75,000-square-feet of gambling, two bars, eight restaurants and even a Starbuck's — would be smaller than a proposal in San Bernardino. The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians proposes a 300,000-square-foot addition to a small casino that started out during the 1980s as a bingo hall. The tribe wants to build a large casino, a 2,000-seat event center and a six-story parking garage — all next to a San Bernardino residential neighborhood. Relations between the city and the tribe are poor and appear to be deteriorating.
Tribal gambling in California
Tribes in California that have federal recognition: 108
Tribal-state gaming compacts in California: 62
Compacted tribes that have active gaming facilities: 51
Compacted tribes without gaming: 11
Tribes that have requested a state compact: 14
Tribes petitioning for federal recognition: 50
Counties with recognized tribes, tribes seeking recognition or sites of proposed casinos: 44 (of 58).
Counties with active casinos: 24
Michael McGowan, Yolo County supervisor, (916) 375-6441.
DeAnn Baker, California State Association of Counties, (916) 327-7500.
Chantal Saipe, San Diego County, (619) 685-2542.
Susan Jensen, California Nations Indian Gaming Association, (916) 448-8706.
Amber Pasricha, governor's office, (916) 445-4571.
Cheryl Schmit, Stand Up for California, (916) 663-3207.
Jim Knox, Common Cause, (916) 443-9356.