An illustration of the Wilton Rancheria’s planned casino-resort for Elk Grove.

The Wilton Rancheria and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs on July 3 filed requests for a federal judge to approve their motions for summary judgment in a lawsuit regarding the legality of the federal government’s approval to place land into trust for the tribe’s proposed casino-resort.

Wilton Rancheria plans to have a $500 million tribal casino-resort built on a 36-acre site near Kammerer Road and Highway 99’s Grant Line Road exit.

The activist group, Stand Up for California!, filed the pending lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Wilton Rancheria.

In their 20-page response, the department refers to the plaintiffs’ (Stand Up’s) “bad faith” in challenging the department’s Jan. 19, 2017 decision to acquire land in Elk Grove in trust for the tribe.

“The plaintiffs’ accusations are just that, baseless accusations irrelevant to the actual claims proffered for this court to vacate the department’s decision,” notes a section of the response.

Responding to Stand Up’s claim that the California Rancheria Act prevents the Department of the Interior from acquiring land in trust for the tribe in Elk Grove, the federal response mentions that this claim is a repackaging of a proposal that was “rejected by the chief judge of this court.”

“Plaintiffs fail to reference the complete statutory language, misread what they do seek to apply, and ignore decades of applicable precedent finding that tribes like Wilton (Rancheria) are eligible for all the benefits that come with being a federally recognized tribe,” reads a portion of the government response.

It is also referenced in the federal response that the Stand Up group maintains that the Department of the Interior pulled a “bait-and-switch” by changing from one alternative site (Galt) to another site (Elk Grove) in the final Environmental Impact Report.

Although the plaintiffs argue that this switch is a substantial change that requires another environmental impact study or second Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the government response notes that the Elk Grove site was substantively analyzed and subjected to public review.

In the tribe’s 25-page response, it is mentioned that the public was “well aware” of the Elk Grove alternative site, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized Elk Grove as the “environmentally preferable alternative.”

The same response states: “(Stand Up) themselves commented on Elk Grove – one even urged the department to prefer it to Galt – as did the city of Elk Grove.”

Wilton Rancheria Chairman Raymond “Chuckie” Hitchcock said that the Stand Up group used “some similar tactics that they tried with other tribes and failed.”

“Stating that Wilton Rancheria should never have been restored (and) is not a tribe (is) in contrary to all three branches of government that have stood up and said, ‘Yes, Wilton Rancheria was illegally terminated and is a tribe.’”

The Wilton Rancheria had its tribal status restored in 2009 after losing that status more than a half-century earlier.

Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up, responded to the federal government’s replies to the lawsuit.

“The federal reply brief has mischaracterized our argument,” she said. “Stand Up and citizens have not challenged Wilton’s status as a federally recognized tribe, rather the challenge is to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ authority to take land into trust because of the limitations in the California Rancheria Act, which bars the trust acquisition in this specific case.”

Schmit specifically commented on water usage at the proposed casino site.

“The Bureau of Indian Affairs failed to take a hard look at the project’s water impacts,” she said. “There has been no thorough analysis of the water requirements or allocation for the casino.

“Rather the EIS used water allocation for (Elk Grove’s cancelled Outlet Collection at Elk Grove) shopping mall developed in 2005. It’s now 2019 and the city of Elk Grove has approved a number of projects since 2005. All residents should be concerned about water allocations.”

The government response notes that the Department of the Interior’s analysis of water supply for the Elk Grove site was “more than adequate,” and that the plaintiffs’ argument on this issue is forfeited, since it was not previously presented to the department.

Additionally mentioned in the government response is the plaintiffs’ claim that the department did not sufficiently address the impact of additional parking at the Elk Grove site in their traffic analysis or the potential for terrorist attack incidents.

“None of these concerns warrant setting aside the department’s decision for further time-consuming and costly agency proceedings,” concludes the federal report.

Hitchcock claims that the Stand Up group continues to use tactics to attempt to delay the proposed casino project.

However, he said that he is confident that the Wilton Rancheria will eventually prevail in this legal battle against the plaintiffs.

“I am most confident that the litigation is going to go in our favor in the next few months,” Hitchcock said. “The judge will be reviewing all the documents and this salacious litigation put before the tribe by Stand Up for California! for the past two years will finally come to an end in the tribe’s favor.”

Tribe’s chair speaks on timeline, financing

Hitchcock said that the timeline for the tribe’s planned completion for their proposed casino-resort project could be slightly delayed.

“We’re on track to get rocking here (with the casino’s opening) really soon – late 2020 or the first of 2021,” he said. “It’s hard to tell. It depends on how things move.

“We are shooting for that date still and see it as a possibility, but until we actually get moving, a definitive finished date is undetermined.

“But as far as a timeline is concerned, our goal has not changed. We’ve made progress and we are still (aiming) for the end of 2020.”

As for financing, Hitchcock noted that investors are prepared to provide funding for the project.

“Financing for this project is not an issue; in fact investors are very excited about the deciding location and its proximity to Sacramento,” he said.

The chairman noted that the tribe would be the owner of this gaming facility in Elk Grove.

Hitchcock added that Boyd Gaming will aid the tribe as its managing partner to assist banks in the financing process of the project.

“They’re not financing the project,” he said. “They will assist us in getting the financing.”