Straight Talk on the Proposed Rumsey Rancheria Casino Expansion
By Dave Rosenberg, Yolo County Supervisor, 4th District
While I would be delighted if turkeys had four drumsticks and if it would occasionally rain beer, as a county supervisor I live in the real world of fact and have to take things as they are, not as I wish they would be.
Which leads me to a discussion of Yolo County's own Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians and their plans to expand their existing casino. Here are the straight facts:
Tribal land. Tribal lands are governed by federal law. State law doesn't apply. Local ordinances don't apply. The Rumsey Indians are sovereign, as a matter of federal law, on their land. What does "sovereign" really mean? Well, it means the following: If, for example, the Rumsey Indians' tribal government decided to build an animal rendering plant on their land, no county general plan, no county zoning and no county ordinance could prevent it.
Federal law. During the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, Congress passed and the President signed the "Indian Gaming Regulatory Act" (IGRA) which gave tribal governments the right to conduct gambling and gaming on tribal land, if state law permits them to do so.
Slot machine gambling. In 1998, California voters overwhelmingly voted for, and passed, an initiative measure called Proposition 1A. This proposition gave Indians in California the exclusive right to conduct gambling and gaming, including the use of slot machines, on their tribal lands. It authorized the Governor to enter into compacts with tribes to do so.
Tribal-State Compacts. In 1999, pursuant to the authority of Prop 1A, 62 Tribal-State Compacts were entered into, giving Indians the right to conduct gaming and gambling on their tribal lands. The Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians were one of the tribes to receive such a compact.
Lawsuit. California card rooms, among others, brought a lawsuit in federal court challenging Prop 1A, the right of Indian tribes to conduct gaming, and the Tribal-State Compacts. That lawsuit was recently decided in favor of the Indian tribes and the compacts, and against the card rooms.
CEQA. The California Environmental Quality Act does not apply to projects on tribal lands, even when those projects have off-reservation impacts. As to casino projects, the compacts require tribes to adopt their own tribal "environmental protection ordinances".
Against this legal and factual background, the Rumsey Indians recently announced their plans to dramatically expand their existing casino operation as well as construct a hotel behind their expanded casino. Pursuant to the tribe's duly adopted environmental protection ordinance, the Rumsey Indians developed a lengthy "environmental assessment" document and asked for public comments. The Yolo County Board of Supervisors determined that the environmental impacts were substantial, and submitted many pages of comments.
What is a county to do? Three options are apparent: (1) Stop the project. (2) Allow the project to go forward as planned. (3) Work with the tribe to mitigate the project and its off-reservation environmental impacts. In my opinion, the first is not possible, the second is not acceptable, and the third option is the only feasible alternative.
Some folks in the county, particularly in the Capay Valley which is directly impacted by the proposed expansion, would like to stop the expansion project in its tracks. They want no expansion, and they expect the Board of Supervisors, as their locally elected officials, to put a stop to it.
I understand what they are saying and feeling, but I must say in response that it is no more within the power of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors to stop this project than it is in the power of the Yolo County Board to stop the City or County of Sacramento from developing Natomas. If it were that simple for a county to halt a casino expansion project on sovereign tribal lands within a county's boundaries, a county in California would have done so. It has never happened. No casino project and no casino expansion project in California has ever been stopped by a local government in court.
Some contend that CEQA must be followed on this proposed expansion. Certainly, if the County of Yolo were developing a project, it would follow CEQA. However, the casino expansion is not a project of any local government entity. It is a project of the tribe. As noted, tribal governments (including the Rumsey Indians) are not governed by CEQA. But interestingly, even if CEQA did apply in this case (which it does not) pursuant to the terms of CEQA the decision-maker (in this case, the Tribal Council) need only analyze environmental impacts, consider practical alternatives and mitigation measures, and can make a decision to override environmental impacts, even significant ones, if they determine that economic, social or other factors support the casino expansion.
So, based on the legal restraints placed on a county, but firm in our conviction that we need to mitigate the off-reservation environmental impacts of this proposed casino expansion, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, in July of 2002, undertook a challenging process of meeting and negotiating with the tribe. We enlisted the aid of former Congressman Vic Fazio to mediate this process. We asked Supervisors Lynnel Pollock and Mike McGowan to be the county's negotiators in this process. And Supervisors McGowan and Pollock have really rolled up their sleeves and are working hard on behalf of all of us. A number of meetings have taken place. More are planned. I am quite hopeful that a positive proposed agreement between the tribe and the county can emerge from these sessions. And it is important to note that the County of Yolo has always been committed, and continues to be committed, to the proposition that in conjunction with any agreement negotiated with the tribe, that CEQA must be followed on all off-reservation environmental mitigation measures.
Any such proposed agreement would come before the full board in public sessions for discussion and decision.
"All" or "nothing" are not the only alternatives. To go forward with the proposed project in its current form is unacceptable. In my opinion, if the expansion project cannot be stopped (and it cannot), then the next best thing is to mitigate the off-reservation environmental impacts. I know that if an ultimate agreement between the tribe and the county emerges from these sessions, it will not be acceptable to those who think there should be no expansion project at all. But we can't wave a magic wand and make the expansion proposal disappear. We can seek to mitigate and alter it to make it better. I think most people in Yolo County will accept that as the only realistic alternative to the present expansion plans for the Rumsey Indians.