Tribe buys land in city approved for development by Auburn

Published: Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 - 2:33 pm

A move by a local tribe to quietly buy a controlling interest in more than 250 acres of land approved for development within Auburn's city limits has sparked concern among some in town, including the mayor.

The fear is the United Auburn Indian Community, which owns Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln, will abandon the approved development plan to instead build substandard housing or – worse, in the view of some – another casino.

The tribe's ownership first came to light through an anonymous email sent to city officials and to property owners who have agreed to sell their land in the development.

"It's gotten people all worried," said Will Wong, city development director. "They jumped to Indian tribe, Indian casino."

Mayor Kevin Hanley said he would have liked to have been told about the purchase earlier and now just wants some clarity.

"We don't normally care who the owner is," he said. "But a federally recognized Indian tribe is a little different."

The city has no means to compel a development corporation to disclose its investors. Hanley said last week that tribal leaders have yet to sit down with him or the city manager.

The first phase of the long, contentious Baltimore Ravine development could yield 270 housing units on the 277-acre property in the southwest area of the city. Developer Stephen Des Jardins has long been the face of the development. But in 2008 the tribe was approached about getting involved and eventually took a controlling interest in Baltimore Ravine LLC, said Doug Elmets, a spokesman for the tribe.

Des Jardins remained as the project lead, with the tribe quietly in the background. Elmets said the tribe was excited to invest in land so close to its ancestral homeland and called suggestions that it would build anything less than first class "mean-spirited." He said the tribe took a controlling interest in the property before the city approved the development plan in 2011 and is still committed to it.

"The tribe has absolutely no intention of having the land taken into trust by the federal government," Elmets said.

The process by which land becomes sovereign Indian territory with fewer land-use constraints is complicated and public, and could take anywhere from two to seven years, said Carmen Facio, realty officer for the Sacramento office of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"There are all kinds of things they would have to do," Facio said.

Building a casino on that land is another complicated process that would require state approval. Elmets scoffed at the idea the tribe would compete with its own successful casino.

He said there is little difference between this investment and other land developments, including the tribe's ownership of the Whitney Oaks golf course.

Hanley said he would like to see Auburn's "good neighbor" relationship with the tribe continue.

"Just because the tribe has taken ownership doesn't mean they can do what they want tomorrow," Hanley acknowledged.

Wong seemed less concerned.

"As far as we're concerned the development is moving forward," he said.

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