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Court's Richmond Casino Decision Awaited

Court’s Richmond Casino Decision Awaited

By Richard Brenneman

Thursday August 28, 2008

Richmond city officials, a would-be gambling tribe and a coalition of environmentalists are anxiously waiting for a final ruling on the legality of a $335 million city pact with the Scotts Valley Band of Pomos.

The tentative ruling issued last Wednesday by Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Barbara Zuniga declared the agreement invalid because the city failed to conduct a state-mandated environmental review before signing the pact.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) mandates examination of the environmental impacts and preparation of a detailed review, which includes both mitigations and alternatives if impacts are significant.

No review was done of the agreement, which was the central issue raised by the judge in her proposed ruling. She noted that a clause in the agreement promising a CEQA review “if required” failed to meet the requirements of the law, given that the pact mandated specific construction projects.

“We’re greatly heartened by the victory,” said Norman LaForce, president of the Sustainability, Parks Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund (SPRAWLDEF), Sierra Club activist and a former El Cerrito councilmember. “Once again, this shows that the City of Richmond really needs to be watchdogged, because its record on environmental issues is very poor.”

SPRAWLDEF was joined in theaction by Citizens for East Shore Parks, which is headed by former Albany mayor Robert Cheasty.

But Don Arnold, chair of the tribe that would own the casino and its land as a restored reservation, said Tuesday that he hadn’t seen the judge’s two-page tentative ruling declaring that the Municipal Services Agreement (MSA) between the city and the Scotts Valley Band of Pomos violated CEQA.

“I didn’t see it,” said Arnold, who said he had been devoting his time to the care of his hospitalized spouse. “It sounds like something the lawyers should have handled.”

The agreement, passed by the City Council in November 2006, promises the city $335 million over 20 years, primarily in return for providing police and fire services and roadway construction and improvements. The agreement is unusual in part because the casino lies outside the city, in unincorporated North Richmond, which falls under county jurisdiction.

Arnold referred calls to Zell & Associates, a Point Richmond-based public relations firm whose clients include Chevron, Valero, Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, Comcast and the City of Richmond itself.

Eric Zell, the firm’s principal and chief of staff to then-Assemblymember Tom Campbell from 1980 to 1987, said he didn’t believe the judge’s decision, if it were to become final, would impact the project’s timeline.

“Once the project is taken into trust, we would be able to go forward with the project fairly soon,” he said, referring to a hoped-for decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take the land into the agency’s trust as a reservation for the tribe.

Even if the judge’s decision should become final, Zell said, the next move is up to the city, which was the defendant in the litigation. One question is the nature of the environmental review that might be required, which could range from a mitigated negative declaration—a finding that corrective measures would minimize adverse impacts—to a full-blown environmental impact review, a more lengthy and costly process.

An assistant in the office of Richmond City Attorney Scott Dickey referred a request for comment on the judge’s proposed ruling to City Manager Bill Lindsay, who had not responded by Wednesday’s deadline.

Casino riches

To a city wracked by unemployment, crime and a legacy of financial woes, the developers of two casinos have promised both riches and jobs.

The Sugar Bowl Casino, one of two Richmond-area gambling projects now under review by the federal Department of the Interior, would be a $200 million, 225,000-square-foot, 1,940-slot machine Las Vegas-style gambling palace.

In addition to the slots, the casino would house 55 table games and 13 Asian card games on the main casino floor, plus a poker room with 16 tables and a special room for “high-rollers” featuring 60 slots, five table games and three Asian card games.

More than 3,500 parking spaces, a 1,500-seat showroom, a 600-seat buffet, a 250-seat entertainment lounge, a 150-seat sports bar and a food court and restaurant, each seating 120, are included in the plans.

The agreement signed with the city calls for the city to provide police and fire services as well as roadway improvements, even though the site is outside city limits and unincorporated and therefore under the nominal jurisdiction of the county.

Unlike Richmond’s other proposed casino complex, the billion-dollar destination resort proposed for the Point Molate shoreline within the existing city boundary, the Sugar Bowl doesn’t include a hotel complex, a shopping center or solar-powered condos.

The Sugar Bowl and its parking structure would occupy much of a 29.87-acre industrial site along Richmond Parkway on a site bounded by Goodrick Avenue on the East and Parr Boulevard to the south.

The project is now under federal environmental review, and an initial draft environmental impact statement (EIS), prepared under the guidelines set by the National Environmental Protection Act, was released earlier this year.

The casino is the project of the Scotts Valley Band of Pomos, a landless tribe which has partnered with Noram Richmond LLC, which is part of the multi-corporate empire that has evolved from North American Sports Management, itself founded by Alan H. Ginsburg of Maitland, Fla., a corporate partner in Native American casino ventures spanning the nation from the extreme Southeast to the far Northwest.

While the Sugar Bowl casino has taken a lead in the bureaucratic approval process, the court decision could give the lead to the Point Molate project, the brainchild of Berkeley environmental cleanup entrepreneur turned would-be gambling mogul Jim Levine.

The Point Molate site is still undergoing an environmental cleanup to remove or safely contain hazards from its legacy as a one-time naval refueling station. The cleanup is under the aegis of Levine’s old company, LFR Recon of Emeryville.

The casino in Levine’s project—designed to attract high-rollers from the lucrative Asian market—will be operated by the Rumsey Band of Wintuns, operators of one of California’s richest casinos, Cache Creek in Yolo County.

The Point Molate environmental review is incorporating both the federal and the state processes, with both a CEQA EIR and a federal EIS in the works, Levine told a recent meeting of the citizens’ advisory group that has been following the environmental cleanup at the site.

Levine and his partners originally agreed to pay the city $50 million for the land, which Richmond is getting from the Defense Department for $1 under federal military base closure legislation, with the promise of additional payments of more $300 million if the project is developed as planned.

But that deal, which includes a municipal services agreement similar to the one the city signed with the Scotts Valley Band, was made when Harrah’s Operating Co.—then the world’s largest casino company—was on board to run the gambling operation. It has since been replaced by the Cache Creek operators.