Elk Grove is one step closer to getting an Indian casino.
The federal government last week shot down an administrative appeal that challenged the process in which Wilton Rancheria’s land was taken into trust – a prerequisite for a tribal casino to be built.
Stand Up for California, a Penryn-based gambling watchdog group, suggested that the Interior Department had the wrong person sign off on the proposal to take the tribe’s 36 acres, off Highway 99, into trust. Under regulations cited by Stand Up, a final decision must be made by the secretary or assistant secretary of Indian Affairs. Wilton’s application was given the green light by a principal deputy assistant secretary.
Michael Black, acting assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, called the trust land decision “final for the department,” in an order that denied Stand Up’s appeal that was filed in February.
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Stand Up plans to appeal the decision in federal court.
Wilton tribal chairman Raymond Hitchcock hailed last week’s announcement as a victory for the tribe and said he expects to break ground on the $400 million casino, hotel and convention center project within three years.
“This lays to rest the conjecture of the opposition,” Hitchcock said Tuesday. “The tribe has land into trust, and we continue to move forward.”
The federal government’s decision clears the way for Hitchcock to begin negotiations with Gov. Jerry Brown on a tribal gaming compact, which also needs to be ratified by the state legislature.
Stand Up Director Cheryl Schmit said Tuesday that the casino is “still not a done deal.”
“This dismissal doesn’t change anything,” she said. “The casino is still a long ways off.”
Stand Up expects to amend a lawsuit filed in January. The project also faces another lawsuit in state court by a group of Elk Grove citizens who claim that city officials illegally colluded with the tribal leaders.
Howard Dickstein, a Sacramento tribal-law attorney who has been closely following the case, noted that continued challenges could delay the casino from opening.
But as far as legal hurdles are concerned, Dickstein said, “I don’t think any of these challenges will ultimately kill the project.”
At worst, Dickstein said, the federal court could overrule the Department of Interior’s decision on the trust land status, which could “force the tribe to go back to square one.”