A rural Northern California county has fallen short in its long fight against a proposed tribal casino near the city of Chico.
In a marked defeat for Butte County officials, and a victory for the Mechoopda Indian Tribe, an East Coast-based federal judge concluded the Interior Department had acted properly in taking land into trust for the proposed casino.
U.S. District Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr. found that the Interior Department’s decision in 2014 “was thorough and well-reasoned,” it “included explanations that were consistent with the evidence before the agency and considered all of the relevant issues.”
Scullin’s 17-page decision, quietly issued Friday, clears a key impediment toward the development of a casino by the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria. Tribal leaders have said they want to use about 91 acres for a casino, out of roughly 625 acres of Butte County land that’s held in trust for the tribe by the Interior Department.
But much more work remains to be done.
“We’re very pleased, obviously,” Sandra Knight, vice chairwoman of the Mechoopda Indian Tribe, said Monday. “This battle has been going on for more than 10 years.”
As originally proposed, the 42,000-square-foot casino would have about 500 slot machines and 10 gaming tables, and would be located near the intersection of Highway 99 and Highway 149.
Knight, citing the cost and delays from the lengthy litigation, said Monday that the tribe would be looking to work collaboratively on a new proposal that might differ from the original.
Citing a policy concerning ongoing legal matters, Butte County’s county counsel Bruce Alpert declined to comment Monday.
Butte County, like a number of others fighting proposed California tribal casinos, had brought its challenge in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Some of these other legal challenges have been transferred back to California, and some drag on for years.
The Mechoopda tribe, notably, bought the land in question in 2001, submitted its application for having the property taken into trust in 2004 and in 2008 won the Interior Department’s initial approval.
The 2014 decision is more than 50 pages in length, thoroughly discusses the evidence before the department and provides an explanation for each of the secretary’s conclusions.
U.S. District Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr.
Butte County officials have raised a number of concerns, including environmental and water-supply worries, about the proposal for what would be the county’s third casino.
Along the way, Butte County’s lawsuit has moved in fits and starts. First, a trial judge said the Interior Department had acted properly. Then, in 2010, an appellate court ordered another Interior Department review after concluding the first one was inadequate.
“It provided no explanation,” wrote Judge Arthur Raymond Randolph of the U.S. Court of the Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
After another go-around, the Interior Department repeated its original conclusion that the tribe’s application was justified. Officials noted in 2014, in part, the 625-acre site’s proximity to an ancient Mechoopda village as well as other cultural sites. The department subsequently took the land into trust.
In upholding the Interior Department’s decision, made by then-Assistant Secretary of the Interior Kevin Washburn, Scullin approvingly cited the “many sources” utilized by department officials in their 2014 assessment.
“The secretary noted that he had derived the recitation of the tribe’s history from his review of all of the documents submitted by the tribe and the county, as well as his own independent research,” Scullin wrote.
Appointed to the federal bench in upstate New York 24 years ago by then-President George H.W. Bush, Scullin is now serving on senior status and stepped in to handle the D.C. court case.