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Judge thwarts casino foes

In October of 2014, North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians of California tribal council, from left, secretary Katrina Guitierez, vice chairperson Maryann McGovran and member Patrick Beihn walk on a section of the 305-acres of land where the proposed casino is to be built near Avenue 17 and Highway 99 in Madera County. (Wendy Alexander/Tribune file photo)


A lawsuit to stop the building of a casino-resort near Avenue 17 and State Route 99 met defeat this week when Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of U.S. District Court ruled in favor of North Fork Rancheria. In denying a motion by six plaintiffs, the chief judge upheld a 2012 decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior to hold a 305.49-acre parcel of land in trust for the North Fork Tribe, which planned to use it for public gaming.

“The North Fork Rancheria is delighted and satisfied with this ruling from the federal court (which) recognizes that the Department of the Interior did a thorough and careful job throughout the lengthy fee-to-trust and environmental review process,” said North Fork Tribal Chairwoman Maryann McGovran.

The casino faced opposition from the organization Stand Up For California!, Pastor Randy Brannon of the Madera Ministerial Association, Susan Stjerne of First Assembly of God-Madera, Dennis Sylvester, and Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, which operates Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino. The judge accused them of a “scorched earth effort to undermine the legitimacy of” the Madera casino site being held in trust by the U.S.

“They have initiated both state and federal litigation as well as statewide political efforts over the last seven-plus years, setting — in their own words — ‘high legal and political hurdles.’ This case is one of those efforts ... While the plaintiffs’ many concerns about the impending casino development are understandable, the law is not on their side,” said Howell in his 170-page summary decision.

“Certainly I’m disappointed in the response, but in a way it was expected,” said Brannon, who leads Grace Community Church in Madera. “Judge Beryl Howell was an Obama appointee in 2008 and is not considered a constitutionalist. Along with that, we will look at all options in our response and certainly our opposition remains as we consider this casino a great detriment to our society if it comes in.”

Brannon said that alongside any financial promises there would also be negative effects “according to national gambling impact studies” such as higher crime, domestic violence, truancy, delinquency, drug and alcohol use, prostitution, suicide rates and more. He also questioned the legality of building a casino away from ancestral tribal land. “This land belonged to Yokuts in the past and not the Monos, who have always been in the foothills all the way up to Nevada,” he said.

Madera County Supervisor David Rogers felt the whole decision was a mistake “beginning with bringing that land into trust before there was a reason to do so or a reasonable expectation that it was tribal land. The real thing to me was 61 percent of the people in the state of California, Madera included, made a decision (in a 2014 referendum) that they didn’t want gambling to proliferate throughout the state. That apparently doesn’t matter anymore. We have judges that will legislate from the bench.”

His fellow supervisor Tom Wheeler, whose district includes North Fork, welcomed the chief judge’s summary decision, which he said probably cleared “the biggest hurdle” the casino faced.

“Now they can start getting their funding ready to do the things they want to do,” he said. “I’m really excited. I’ve been fighting for them even before I started to think of running for supervisor. I grew up with all of them. I used to call them my half-ass relatives … They’re sharing with everyone. Chukchansi is not sharing with nothing.”

In a motion against the Madera casino, the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians estimated that its construction would force the layoff of “the equivalent of 570 full-time positions.” Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino could lose 22.2-32.4 percent of its gaming revenue if the Madera casino is built, according an analysis by consultants Klas Robinson QED cited by Chukchansi.

An August ruling also favored the rancheria as the U.S. District Court in Fresno declined to halt procedures that would allow class-III gaming on the Madera trust land.

“After finally overcoming so many legal and political challenges, we are ready to start developing our project so that we can bring jobs and economic opportunity to our tribal members, the community and this region,” said McGovran.

The casino project, Howell said, could include “up to 2,500 gaming devices, six bars, three restaurants, a five-tenant food court, a 200-room hotel tower, and 4,500 parking spaces.”

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