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Richmond’s Deal With Tribe on Casino Invalid, Judge Rules.

August 28, 2008

By John Simerman

Richmond violated state environmental laws when it agreed to a 20- year, $335 million pact with an American Indian tribe to provide emergency services, roadwork and political support for a casino just outside city limits, a Contra Costa County judge has found.

In a tentative ruling last week, Judge Barbara Zuniga said the city needed to complete an environmental review before it could commit to several projects in its 2006 deal with the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians. Zuniga is expected to issue her final ruling this week.

The 220-member tribe, needing local support, turned to Richmond after county supervisors opposed its federal application for a Las Vegas-style casino on 30 acres at Parr Boulevard and Richmond Parkway in unincorporated North Richmond. Richmond’s City Council obliged, pledging traffic improvements and a new, upgraded or relocated fire station, along with police and fire service. The city would get jobs related to the casino project, along with big money if the casino were built.

Last year, the Parchester Village Neighborhood Council and a group of local environmental groups sued.

Zuniga ruled that a mention of future compliance with state environmental laws was not enough. If it stands, the ruling could hamper the tribe’s chances for approval, since federal policy calls for local support and mitigation measures for “off-reservation” casino proposals. And it comes at a key moment. A federal ruling is expected soon on whether the land meets stringent qualifications that would allow the tribe to run a casino on it.

City Council members said they will wait for Zuniga’s final opinion before deciding whether to appeal it or perhaps complete an environmental report.

“The city of Richmond has a long history of flouting (state environmental) law, and I think we repeatedly get bad advice from our attorneys. We get beaten in the courts on it and keep going back and doing the same thing,” said Councilman Tom Butt. He had urged the council to negotiate for upfront money from the tribe and voted against the deal. Butt said he did not think the council could support the tribe without a valid agreement.

“Our commitment to give them a municipal services agreement is critical to their ability to get that casino in there,” he said.

The tribe is paying the city’s legal costs. Councilman Jim Rogers, who favored the deal, said he would wait for a legal analysis of the ruling. The council returns Sept. 2 from its summer recess.

Eric Zell, spokesman for Scotts Valley, said he did not expect the ruling to weaken the tribe’s chance at federal approval.

“We think they saw there was local support through the fact we had an agreement,” Zell said. “If the court decides there’s a technical glitch, I’m not sure that’s going to change the message.”

Reach John Simerman at 925-943-8072 or jsimerman@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Originally published by John Simerman, Contra Costa Times.

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