Public expresses concern over shift in casino plan

By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

Months after the city approved a $5.5-million land sale for the development of an Indian gaming casino, the topic once again dominated discussion at last week’s meeting of the Ridgecrest City Council. The public and the council were surprised to learn that the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe planned to skirt an environmental review process that would have been in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act and that was expected through the city’s Municipal Services Agreement with the tribe.

Tribal Chairman George Gholson announced in a letter to the council last month that the tribe would pursue a land swap instead of a fee-to-trust arrangement, waiving the requirement of a NEPA analysis as per the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act. Before beginning any construction, there will have to be a Tribal Environmental Impact Report prepared by the tribe, pursuant to tribal law.

While Gholson assured council that the TEIR would have to meet “certain minimum standards” of a NEPA- or California Environmental Quality Act-type analysis, the shift in direction continues to raise concern from the public.

“NEPA is about disclosure and it’s about transparency,” said Sophia Merck during last week’s council meeting. As a member of the East Kern County Resource Conservation District, Merck is familiar with several environmental review processes, including NEPA.

Merck advised the council to ask for an Environmental Impact Statement from NEPA in addition to the tribe’s EIR.

“I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go forward, but don’t blindly trust,” added Rick Platts, a member of the public.

“Ridgecrest is near and dear to my heart,” said Platts. “I understand that the casino did receive a majority of the votes and was passed by a previous council. But like the city, I believe this council is divided on the fate of the casino. I would like to remind and encourage the council of its duty to protect all the citizens.

“It seems to me that some very shady things are already happening. I’m not encouraging you to squash it now. But there’s a lot of sleight of hand going on.”

Santa Barbara County is experiencing similar troubles with the Santa Ynez tribe. The county has accused the tribe of an improper environmental review and is taking legal action against the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ decision to annex additional land for the tribe.

Gholson outlined his tribe’s review process in his letter.

In preparing a TEIR, the tribe must send a notice to the state, county and city including a description of the project and its “probable off-reservation environmental im-pacts.”

A 30-day comment period will then provide the city an opportunity to weigh in.

The tribe plans to contract with Sacramento-based Analytic Envir-onmental Services, which Gholson said “has the most experience preparing TEIRs in the state.”

After taking comments into account, the tribe will complete the final TEIR and submit it to the state, and the state will then declare whether or not the report is adequate. “The tribe’s intent in sharing this detailed information is to assure the city of Ridgecrest that your concerns and interests will be well-represented, and you will have ample opportunity to protect the legitimate interests of the city in this project,” said Gholson.

“The proposed TEIR is not at all the equivalent to a NEPA process and will not afford us the same protections,” said member of the public Mike Neel. “The NEPA review was agreed to in our MSA with the tribe, and now we see them breaking that agreement.”

City Attorney Keith Lemieux reported, after confirming with tribal law consultant Jack Duran, that while the break away from the NEPA process was unexpected, it did not result in a breach of the MSA. Specifically the “whereas” statements in the MSA that mention the tribe complying with a NEPA review are non-legally-binding “recitals,” as opposed to “obligations.”

The Ridgecrest City Council will meet again on Feb. 15.

Story First Published: 2017-02-10