Casino a step closer
Barring a lawsuit, the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico has nearly completed the process of getting federal approval of its plan to build a casino near the intersection of Highways 149 and 99.
A lawsuit is a distinct possibility, however.
On Jan. 16, the tribe received notice that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had issued a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) and that no environmental-impact statement was required. The 631-acre parcel will now be listed in the Federal Register in preparation for being taken into trust by the U.S. government on the tribe’s behalf.
Butte County opposes the casino site on environmental and traffic grounds, said County Counsel Bruce Alpert, and now must decide whether to sue the bureau. Such a lawsuit would “maintain that the Department of the Interior hasn’t followed its own guidelines,” he explained. “They’re not supposed to issue a FONSI when a project is controversial and opposed by local agencies, as this one certainly is.”
Tribal Secretary Sandra Knight suggested that one of the reasons the BIA issued the FONSI was because the casino was a relatively small one—about half the size of the two Oroville casinos—and the tribe’s voluminous environmental assessment was unusually detailed.
Alpert disagreed, however. “Volume doesn’t indicate good science,” he said. “It just indicates volume.” The EA lacks information on traffic, potential flooding, environmental impacts and the project’s relationship with the county’s new general plan. In addition, a habitat conservation plan for the county now being completed, he said, will show that the area “has all sorts of sensitive environmental issues and is a recharge area for the groundwater aquifer.”
A particularly thorny issue is the traffic signal that will be required on Highway 149 if the casino is approved.
The state has just completed a $120 million improvement of the corridor to allow unimpeded traffic flow, and a signal would disrupt that. On the other hand, Knight pointed out, state highway officials have determined that a signal would suffice to handle the amount of traffic generated by the casino, so the tribe shouldn’t have to spend more money on an overpass. “We intend to work with CalTrans to ensure safety,” she said.
County supervisors will have about a month to decide whether to sue. Even if they choose not to, the project still faces tremendous hurdles in getting state approval. The tribe will have to work out a gaming compact with the Governor’s Office and get legislative approval, and Indian gaming is “a very hot issue” these days, Knight acknowledged. Four propositions on the Feb. 5 ballot are challenging already-signed compacts.
In the meantime, Knight said the tribe had begun communicating with local public-safety officials, including Chico’s police and fire chiefs, about contracting for services. It has sent out a request for proposals to all local public-safety agencies, city, county and state, and is waiting for responses.