Casino process difficult to halt

SNOQUALMIE - For those concerned about the Snoqualmie Tribe's proposed casino, the message from local officials wasn't very encouraging: The Tribe has a right to establish a reservation and build a casino, and there is little recourse for residents to prevent that from happening.

"It's not a completely done deal, but it's not something that we could pass a local law or state law to change," said Rep. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley.

Pflug, along with Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City, and Metropolitan King County Council members Kathy Lambert and David Irons, spoke Thursday, Jan. 17, at an informational meeting organized by the group Snoqualmie Valley Citizens for Positive Growth and Development held in the Mount Si High School auditorium.

Tribal representatives weren't in attendance because they were in Arizona at a meeting with the investor who is backing the proposed casino.

Ray Wilson, who with Jim Anderson started Snoqualmie Valley Citizens for Positive Growth and Development, said his group supports the Tribe's efforts to become self-sufficient, but it believes a better location for the casino can be found instead of the proposed site on 56 acres along Southeast North Bend Way, near Interstate 90's Exit 27.

"We have a lot of questions," Wilson said. "What will [the casino] provide for the community? Will it provide for the community?"

Anderson said the social, economic and environmental impacts of the proposed casino have yet to be weighed, and more information is needed before plans move forward.

"What we're trying to do is stop the process until we can gain a better understanding of this issue," he said.

Many residents who live near where the casino would be located have repeatedly voiced their frustrations about the project, only to find that local, county and state government officials seem powerless to do anything about it.

They say if they wanted to build something on a similar scale to the casino, they would be required to go through a lengthy permitting process, where everyone could comment on it and officials would have the authority to stop it.

But under the federal government's Indian Reorganization Act of 1939 and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, federally recognized Native American tribes such as the Snoqualmies have a right to buy land, which the government holds in trust as the tribe's official reservation. And the tribes can build casinos that allow them to provide services like health care to their members.

"In reality, we're four elected officials standing before you with no legislative authority over what we're talking about," Irons told the approximately 50 people who attended the meeting.

Cindy Rasmussen of Redmond-based United Property Owners, a national property rights group, said because federally recognized Native American tribes are considered sovereign nations, zoning laws or regulations such as the state's Growth Management Act do not apply to reservation lands.

"With sovereign immunity, they can do virtually anything they want to with those lands," she said.

The Snoqualmie Tribe is engaged in a two-prong process to build a casino. A gaming compact between the state and the Tribe has been approved by the Washington State Gambling Commission. Gov. Gary Locke will likely sign the compact, which will then be sent to Department of Interior Secretary Gale Norton for her approval.

At the same time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is considering the Tribe's application to place the 56 acres in the city of Snoqualmie's urban growth area in trust. An environmental assessment of the property is currently being conducted, Pflug explained, and when that is finished, the BIA Puget Sound Agency office in Everett will allow the public to comment on the assessment. She added residents should write to BIA officials in Everett, asking to be notified of when the environmental assessment is completed.

If the Puget Sound Agency office approves the trust application, it would be forwarded to the regional office in Portland. From there, it would be sent to Norton to ratify.

Pflug said residents' concerns about the proposed casino would be taken into account by the BIA, but they would likely not have an impact on the project.

"There would have to be a pretty significant reason, and I can't think of one, for this not to become a casino," she said.

Irons cautioned residents not to "draw a line in the sand." Instead, he urged them to negotiate their concerns with the Snoqualmie Tribe and work to have those concerns mitigated if possible.

"Just realize that 'no' does take you out of the negotiations and discussions of what the casino might look like," he said.

While she is personally against casinos, Lambert said the Snoqualmie Tribe deserves credit for its apparent willingness to work with community members, citing as an example plans to keep the casino out of the line of sight of most residents.

"They didn't have to do that. They could build some monstrosity that we could all see," she said.

Two women who might be able to wield some leverage on the Snoqualmie Tribe's trust application are Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. Anderson encouraged people to write to them - repeatedly, if necessary - with their concerns about the proposed casino.

"Those two ladies can have a great deal of influence on how the BIA looks at [the trust application] and deals with it," he said.

You can reach Barry Rochford at (425) 888-2311, or e-mail him at barry.

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