By Dale Kasler
In a major boost for a proposed $400 million Indian casino in Elk Grove, the federal government has agreed to let the tribe acquire 36 acres of land in the suburb for the embattled project.
The U.S. Department of the Interior, in a ruling made public as President Barack Obama left office Friday, said it will take the land “into trust” for the Wilton Rancheria Indian tribe. That decision would pave the way for the tribe to buy the land, at the south end of Elk Grove near Highway 99, from shopping mall developer Howard Hughes Corp.
While the tribe hailed the decision as “a major milestone,” it doesn’t necessarily end the political fight over the 600,000-square-foot project. Casino opponents, led by a firm connected to the operator of two Sacramento-area card clubs, have qualified a ballot referendum aimed at stopping the casino.
Local voters usually don’t have the power to block a tribal casino, but the Wilton Rancheria project could be different. The referendum seeks to overturn the Elk Grove City Council’s decision in October to amend a 2014 development agreement with the Hughes corporation to build a long-awaited shopping mall on the site. The amended deal will allow Hughes to unload a portion of its land – the 36 acres – to the Wilton tribe.
Howard Dickstein, a Sacramento tribal-law expert not connected to this controversy, said the voter referendum, if it passes, could take precedence over the Interior Department’s decision.
“This is an unusual situation because the tribe is dependent on the Elk Grove decision to amend the agreement with Howard Hughes,” said Dickstein, who has represented the tribal owner of Thunder Valley Casino, among others. “If the City Council decision is overturned, then I think they (the Wilton tribe) have a very serious problem.”
The Elk Grove council hasn’t yet scheduled the election on the casino referendum.
City leaders support the casino in part because it would serve as a catalyst for the Hughes outlet mall. The retail complex would be built on a half-built mall site abandoned in 2008 by Hughes’ predecessor, and city officials have been eager to get the project developed. Hughes hasn’t set a groundbreaking date for its project and says the casino is needed to drive traffic to the mall.
Roger Salazar, a spokesman for casino opponent Knighted Ventures LLC, said he isn’t sure whether the referendum would be able to stop the casino in light of the Interior Department’s decision.
“What we really want is for the voters to weigh in on the decision the City Council made,” he said.
Knighted Ventures provides financing services to Silver F Inc., the owner of the Parkwest Casino Lotus on Stockton Boulevard and Parkwest Casino Cordova in Rancho Cordova.
The Interior Department’s decision would provide the Wilton tribe a plot of land for the first time since 1958. Although Wilton’s federal recognition was restored in 2009, it has remained a “landless” tribe. It operates out of a small office in Elk Grove, about 4 miles north of the casino site.
In its decision, the Interior Department noted that the proposed casino site is 5 miles from Wilton’s old rancheria and 4 miles from its historic cemetery.
“After 58 years without a home, our people finally will have land,” said tribal Chairman Raymond Hitchcock in a prepared statement. “This has been a long and hard struggle. We can now tell our elders that their blood, sweat and tears will have been worth it.”
The department said the Elk Grove site will provide the tribe “a restored land base and the best opportunity for attracting and maintaining a significant, stable and long-term source of governmental revenue.” It said the land will promote “the long-term economic self-sufficiency, self-determination and self-governance of the tribe.”
The department issued its decision Thursday, the last full day of business of the Obama administration. Gambling industry experts have speculated that President Donald Trump wouldn’t be as sympathetic as Obama to tribal casino projects.