By Darrell Smith
A crucial federal court victory has brought the Wilton Rancheria to the doorstep of a new casino and resort in Elk Grove.
A District of Columbia federal judge this week threw out a motion brought by gambling opponents Stand Up for California to block the half-billion-dollar, 36-acre casino project near Highway 99 and Kammerer Road.
U.S. District Judge Trevor N. McFadden issued the 33-page decision Oct. 7, court documents show.
“We are gratified by the judge’s ruling to decisively reject dishonest arguments put forth by well-funded special interest groups that have tried at every turn to stop our project,” said Wilton Rancheria Chairman Raymond Hitchcock in a statement following the D.C. court’s decision. “We will continue to move ahead with our plans to build the resort and casino.”
“It’s a pretty huge step,” Hitchcock said of the decision later Wednesday. “We’ve been dealing with this litigation for three years.”
Hitchcock in January said he anticipated a 2019 groundbreaking for the project. On an autumn Wednesday, he said Rancheria leaders are finalizing plans for the casino and firming development plans, but said determining when construction will begin will be a “game-time decision.”
“The next step is breaking ground – we’re looking at construction documents,” Hitchcock said. “But winter is coming.”
Hitchcock in an earlier statement said Wilton Rancheria pledges to invest $186 million with Elk Grove and Sacramento County over the first 20 years of the casino-resort project. The money will be earmarked for police, schools, roads and other services.
Stand Up for California, the Penryn-based anti-gambling group, sued Wilton Rancheria and the U.S. Department of the Interior to block the project. The Interior Department agreed to acquire land on the site of Elk Grove’s infamous “ghost mall,” the shopping center project that was only partially completed and languished for years before it was demolished earlier this year.
Stand Up for California officials did not answer a request for comment Wednesday.
Stand Up cited a host of potential impacts from traffic on and along Highway 99 to feared threats to a propane facility a half-mile across the highway near Grant Line and Waterman roads to water use in a thirsty Sacramento County.
The water argument led to a rare concession from McFadden in his decision.
McFadden wrote that Stand Up’s concerns about the regional water supply were “well-taken, particularly in drought-afflicted California” saying Interior officials “could not find a perfect answer” to address water constraints even after environmental reviews.
Still, McFadden ruled that “There is no basis to invalidate the Department’s land acquisition for Wilton.”
McFadden ruled for the Rancheria on several key points: The Elk Grove casino project land was within land occupied by Wilton ancestors, near historical tribal sites and fewer than 6 miles from the historic Wilton Rancheria.
“These attachments show Wilton’s historical connection to the Elk Grove site,” the D.C. judge wrote.
McFadden also flatly rejected Stand Up’s argument that Wilton and federal officials operated in bad faith by rushing through environmental and regulatory reviews and keeping Elk Grove residents in the dark about plans for the site.
“The record tells a different story,” McFadden wrote, saying Interior Department officials first published notice of the Elk Grove site in 2014 and offered two months for public comment in 2015. Wilton named Elk Grove as a “preferred alternative” to the original Galt site in June 2016 before hosting a town hall meeting to solicit more public comment.
“Surely the public knew that the Elk Grove site was under consideration,” McFadden wrote, concluding that he found “no evidence of a legal or procedural flaw in Interior’s decision making” in ruling for the Rancheria.