Central Valley

Public invited to comment at casino hearing

MADERA -- Debate is heating up over a proposed $250 million Indian casino in Madera County, and hundreds are expected to show up Wednesday evening for the only public hearing planned on the federal government's study of its effects.

Opponents have run newspaper and radio advertisements decrying the casino as a losing bet. They say it would snarl traffic along nearby Highway 99, harm the environment and set a bad precedent of allowing Indian casinos far from traditional tribal lands.

Supporters counter that the casino -- proposed by the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians -- would be an economic bonanza, bringing thousands of jobs and generating millions of dollars for things like police, fire protection, parks and roads.

Calls from people who want to speak at the hearing have been coming in to the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Sacramento, said Patrick O'Mallan, an environmental protection specialist with the bureau.

"Usually we don't hear from anybody until the hearing," O'Mallan said.

There will be a sign-in table for those who want to speak. Public officials will be heard first, then others according to the sign-in order. Sign-in cards also will be available for anyone who wants to submit a written opinion before the March 31 deadline.

The Indian tribe wants to build the facility in conjunction with Las Vegas-based Station Casinos. It would be on 305 acres just north of the Madera Municipal Airport.

In order to build the casino roughly 40 miles away from its traditional tribal lands, however, the North Fork Rancheria needs U.S. Interior Department approval for the land to be put into federal trust.

This is a controversial idea. Gambling critics complain about "reservation shopping," while some local residents worry about crime.

Proponents note that the tribe already has reached understandings with Madera County, the city of Madera and the Madera Irrigation District covering law enforcement, roads and water delivery for up to 20 years after the casino opens.

O'Mallan said the Bureau of Indian Affairs would take four to five months before it releases a final environmental impact report on the Madera casino after the hearing. November elections could postpone a final decision in Washington D.C. until 2009, he said.

North Fork Mono tribal chairwoman Jacquie Van Huss said that the meeting is intended to get comment on the environmental impact report and the tribe's mitigation measures -- not to decry the morality of gambling.

"You have to give a darn good reason if you don't want it to be built there," Van Huss said about reservation shopping accusations.

Chairs for 300 people will be set up for the hearing in Hatfield Hall at the Madera County Fairgrounds, but 200 more chairs will be available, Madera District Fair spokeswoman Joyce Reiring said. Hatfield Hall has 10,000 square feet of floor space.

Madera City Administrator David Tooley said that the tribe and the city already have an agreement that will give the city up to $31.8 million in the first 20 years after the casino doors open. The agreement includes an understanding that if the city provides water and sewer services to the casino, the cost would be addressed in separate negotiations.

"Any impacts that the casino may create for the city are fully and completely mitigated," Tooley said.

The Madera County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 in July 2005 to support the casino at the tribe's chosen location. Supervisor Vern Moss of Chowchilla, who represents residents around the proposed casino site, was the lone board dissenter.

Reporter Charles McCarthy can be reached at

cmccarthy@fresnobee.com

or 559 675-6804.

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