Just before President Barack Obama left office last week, his administration declared the Wilton Rancheria Indian tribe could acquire 36 acres of land in Elk Grove in order to build a $400 million casino.
But the land question is not entirely resolved, and the tribe’s plans could rest with Elk Grove voters – or the administration of President Donald Trump.
The Elk Grove City Council, which has supported the tribe’s effort, will meet Wednesday night and try to sort out an increasingly complicated legal picture regarding the proposed casino off Highway 99.
The council will probably schedule a voter referendum that could potentially overturn the council’s decision last October to allow shopping-mall developer Howard Hughes Corp. to sell the 36-acre parcel to the Wilton tribe. Casino opponents tied to the card club industry succeeded in qualifying the question for the ballot. A vote would likely be held June 6, according to a city staff report.
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Last Thursday, Obama’s U.S. Interior Department agreed to take the land “into trust” on the tribe’s behalf. That’s a legal necessity before the tribe can acquire the land.
“This marks a major milestone in our plans,” tribal Chairman Raymond Hitchcock said last week.
But the land is still in limbo, and so are the tribe’s plans.
Jennifer MacLean, a lawyer for gambling watchdog group Stand Up for California, said Tuesday that the Interior Department has held off on taking the land into trust while it considers Stand Up’s request to postpone any move. Stand Up said in a filing in U.S. District Court in Washington that the Interior Department shouldn’t do anything with the land while a voter referendum – and a separate lawsuit opposing the casino on environmental grounds – are pending.
Officials with the Interior Department couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
Bob Magnuson, a tribal spokesman, declined comment.
George Forman, a tribal-law expert from San Francisco not connected to this case, said Interior probably won’t take the land into trust while a transition is still underway to the Trump administration. Trump’s nominee to head Interior, Ryan Zinke, hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate.
“The caretaker staff at Interior is unlikely to do anything substantive,” Forman said. He added that the referendum, if successful, “could make it very difficult for Howard Hughes to transfer the land to the tribe.”
Adding to the legal muddle: Trump’s chief of staff told agency heads last week to put a hold on implementing any regulatory decisions that haven’t yet been published in the Federal Register, the official daily newspaper of the U.S. government. Last week’s decision by Interior hasn’t been published.