Casino required to undergo NEPA

Casino required to  undergo NEPACity Attorney Lloyd Pilchen and City Manager Ron Strand at a previous council meeting. — Photo by Laura Austin

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By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

City Manager Ron Strand met with James Cason, associate deputy secretary of the Department of Interior, last week in Washington, D.C., to support the Timbisha Shoshone tribe’s efforts to establish a casino in Ridgecrest. The controversial item was approved 3-2 by council last month amid arguments that city officials should be expressing jurisdictional concerns rather than support for the project.

“The most significant takeaway from the meeting was that if the Ridgecrest lands are taken into mandatory trust, a [National Environmental Policy Act review] would still be required before the casino is built,” said Strand in an email. Strand sent the email to media outlets after hearing that member of the public Mike Neel had submitted a public records request regarding the meeting.

The requirement of a NEPA review will come as a relief to many locals. The tribe insisted that it would adhere to NEPA regulations until they learned it was no longer a requirement and opted instead for a tribal environmental impact report, which many alleged would be less rigorous.

Strand reported that Cason was aware of local concerns and was in favor of a NEPA review and that the Office of Indian Gaming said it would be required to establish an Indian gaming management contract.

“The meeting ended with Mr. Cason directing his staff to continue with a land trust acquisition application,” said Strand. “No decision was made as to whether the land trust qualified for a mandatory acquisition or not, and there was no timeframe given when such a decision would be made.”

The two-year escrow on the land sale closes this coming October, at which point either agency – the council or the developer – can request an extension or decide to kill the sale. Neither party, with the exception of Councilmembers Lindsey Stephens and Wallace Martin, has shown any inclination to back out of the deal.

In addition to the public records request, Neel also filed an injunction in an effort to prevent city council or staff from continuing discussion on casino matters with the tribe or developers. The judge denied Neel’s injunction for lack of merit according to City Attorney Lloyd Pilchen.

Neel has since filed a suit against the city and the council “wherein [Mayor Peggy Breeden and Mayor Pro Rem Michael Mower] have improperly engaged in voting in a matter that they have significant financial interest in.”

Neel alleges that Breeden and Mower support the casino through their elected offices in the interest of their businesses.

“By voting for a casino, Breeden voted to expand the businesses who would advertise with her and thus enrich herself,” says the suit in regard to The Swap Sheet, a business she owns. “Additionally, Mower’s [hardware store and construction company] have fulfilled numerous city of Ridgecrest projects, and it is reasonable and foreseeable that the development of the casino and land may be done by Mower’s company...”

Neel also claims that the two councilmembers “routinely meet at The Swap Sheet offices to discuss business matters.”

“The city generally does not comment on pending litigation,” said Pilchen when he was asked for the city’s response. In a separate interview, Strand said that Neel was “basically living in a different reality,” and that his allegations were unfounded.

The Ridgecrest City Council will meet April 18, 6 p.m. at City Hall. While the agenda was not available at press time, casino matters are regularly a topic of discussion, both as agenda items and during public comment. See also ridgecrest-ca.gov/ridgecrest-city-council.

Story First Published: 2018-04-13