Business & Real Estate

Tribal law expert: Elk Grove casino in ‘holding pattern’

Wilton Rancheria chairman leads meeting on Elk Grove casino

Raymond Hitchcock led a town hall meeting in July on a proposed casino, which was attended by hundreds of Elk Grove citizens with mixed reactions to the project and lots of questions.
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Raymond Hitchcock led a town hall meeting in July on a proposed casino, which was attended by hundreds of Elk Grove citizens with mixed reactions to the project and lots of questions.

Wilton Rancheria’s bid to build a $400 million Indian casino in Elk Grove is in a holding pattern while the Trump administration formulates Indian gaming policy and reviews Obama administration approvals that ushered the project forward, according to tribal-law attorney Howard Dickstein.

“It’s speculative as to where this will end up,” said Dickstein, a prominent tribal industry expert. “It’s going to be a significant period of time before the Department of Interior … makes a determination on the property. Until then, I think it is unlikely that this particular project can move forward.”

In February, the federal government took 36 acres the tribe purchased into trust for the gambling facility. But questions remain about whether the transfer was finalized. The federal action is intended to establish the property as sovereign tribal ground for the Wilton Rancheria and clear the way for the casino to be built along Highway 99 without the city’s approval.

And the transaction is facing new scrutiny from recently appointed leaders of the U.S. Department of Interior and the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

In a Feb. 15 letter to the department, committee chairman Rob Bishop of Utah called for a reversal of the decision if it was done “without a fair consideration of the affected interests.”

“There is precedent for the reversal of last-minute actions made by an outgoing administration’s personnel following an investigation,” wrote Bishop, a Republican.

Critics of the casino have alleged that the federal government did not follow proper procedures when it moved the acreage into trust. The issues: whether the process was rushed in the waning hours of the Obama administration and whether officials overstepped their authority.

The Wilton tribe has argued that opponents who have filed legal actions are little more than distractions meant to delay the casino, hotel and convention center project.

Federal officials aren’t talking. Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, declined to comment on the status of the trust, citing the pending litigation.

Foes of the casino – including card rooms, Elk Grove citizens and a gambling watchdog group, Stand Up – are seeking to reverse the land transfer, citing a development agreement between the city and developer Howard Hughes Corp. for an outlet mall at the site. Stand Up has taken its case to the Department of Interior.

The stakes are high for Wilton and its partner, Boyd Gaming of Las Vegas. Boyd financed the $36 million purchase of the 36-acre parcel from Howard Hughes in February, a price experts say is above market value for the area. The hurdles facing Wilton could delay construction of the outlet mall, which Hughes has said can only be viable with a casino next door.

Dickstein noted that the decision to take land into trust has yet to be published in the Federal Register, a formality that completes the process.

“It’s not accidental,” said Dickstein, who has represented multiple Indian tribes in casino ventures, including the owner of Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln. “I’ve never seen a decision that is not published within a few weeks.”

Raymond Hitchcock, chairman of the Wilton Rancheria, downplayed the importance of the Federal Register filing, describing it as “just a notice that an action has occurred.”

“The tribe has land in trust as of Feb. 10, 2017, so the land-in-trust process has been completed and the project continues to progress,” he said.

Hitchcock did not address whether the tribe had begun negotiations for a gaming compact with the state, and he did not provide details about any progress toward breaking ground. Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown, said the state typically does not discuss tribal negotiations.

As the fight rages over a proposed Indian casino in Elk Grove, Limelight Card Room in Sacramento perseveres against the competition.

Richard Chang: 916-321-1018, @RichardYChang

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