By Lance Armstrong - Citizen Staff Writer
A federal judge on Oct. 7 dismissed the remaining claims that contested the U.S. Department of the Interior’s authority and decision to place Wilton Rancheria’s tribal land in Elk Grove into federal trust.
The tribe plans to build a $500 million casino-resort on that 36-acre property, near Kammerer Road and the Grant Line Road exit of Highway 99.
In presenting his decision, Judge Trevor McFadden ruled that the land acquisition was properly handled. The Department of the Interior took the land into federal trust on Feb. 10, 2017.
In announcing his Oct. 7 opinion, McFadden wrote that the land qualified as “restored land,” with the Wilton Rancheria having “significant historic connection” to the site, which is within the territory once occupied by ancestors of Wilton Rancheria tribal members, and is less than 6 miles from the historic Wilton Rancheria.
McFadden additionally ruled that the Department of the Interior complied with the National Environmental Protection Act. That opinion rejects a challenge regarding alleged threats to the water supply, traffic impacts, and public safety.
As for a challenge to the tribe’s standing as a recognized tribe, McFadden wrote: “There is no basis to invalidate the department’s land acquisition for Wilton; it rests on the tripartite authority of the entire federal government (that of the executive branch, Congress and the judiciary).”
McFadden’s granting of the motion for summary judgment against the Penryn-based Stand Up for California! marked the first time in nearly three years that the tribe has not been involved in some type of litigation regarding its casino-resort project.
Stand Up, which is led by its director Cheryl Schmit, is a watchdog group that focuses on gambling issues.
Wilton Rancheria Tribal Chair Raymond “Chuckie” Hitchcock said that he was excited about the judge’s ruling.
“I was really excited for the judgment that was made by the (Washington) D.C. District Court Judge Trevor McFadden,” he said. “It just signifies what we said all along: This lawsuit was completely frivolous, and a big waste of (the) tribe’s resources.”
The tribal chair added that with the judge’s decision, the tribe will continue to move forward with its project.
“We will continue to move ahead with our plans to build the resort and casino, which will create thousands of jobs and represents the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars by Wilton Rancheria in the city of Elk Grove and Sacramento County,” he said.
The tribe agreed to invest $186 million in the first 20 years of the project, with the city of Elk Grove and Sacramento County to support police, schools, roads and other services.
Hitchock added that he believes the Stand Up group has not abandoned their effort to challenge the casino-resort project.
“I’m sure they won’t go away,” he said. “But what was nice is Judge McFadden essentially told Stand Up to sit down and leave Wilton (Rancheria) alone.
“Cheryl Schmit had said a couple of years ago about how they had a plethora, a buffet table of things to choose from to go against the tribe. The decision was more than decisive and just shows the lack of credibility that Stand Up has as an organization.”
Schmit responded to McFadden’s dismissal of Stand Up’s claims.
“We are disappointed at the recent decision and (are) currently considering our next steps,” she said.
Although Hitchcock did not specify when the groundbreaking for the casino-resort would occur, he noted that he hopes that McFadden’s recent judgment allows the tribe to steadily progress with its project.
“We’re hoping that removing this final legal cloud will help clear our way forward to build the premier casino-resort in Elk Grove that we always aspired and have proposed to bring out to the community,” he said.