Eagle Mt. Casino - Not in my backyard!

By Carolyn Barbre

Chairman Jim Maples told the gallery that the Tule River Tribal Council has asked the Tulare County Board of Supervisors to support them building a new casino on Highway 190.

The location, by Lake Success, is eight miles north of Porterville and eight miles south of Springville as well as 10 miles west of the present Eagle Mountain Casino on the Tule Indian Reservation.

Pretty much everyone knew this, which was why there were there, to say why they were for or against the casino relocating, at the Dec. 2 hearing in the board chambers at the county civic center in Visalia. Normally proponents speak first but there had already been a hearing last month where several opponents were interrupted by Maples while none of the supporters of the casino were cut off. Dozens of angry letters, e-mails and phone calls followed, so a second meeting was scheduled. Maples was quoted in The Fresno Bee as saying, "I coached a bad game. I was wrong. I admit it."

OPPONENTS

Citizens for Quality Environment

The first opponent to speak was Robert Inabinette, representing Citizens for Quality Environment. Another 10 speakers lined up against the wall, waiting their turn at the microphone to state their opposition.

"The citizens of Tulare County who approved the ballot, did not vote for gaming on private land, only on Indian land," Inabinette said. He said the tribe has not been forthcoming with information while surveyors and others had been seen on the property and they wanted to know what was happening. Inabinette offered some figures that claimed casinos cost far more in public services than counties receive in benefits tribes choose to bestow.

He reminded them that the board represented the 390,000 citizens of Tulare County and their vote counted when it came to getting support from the governor and the Secretary of the Interior's approval. "We understand the desire to bring jobs, but what is the price of providing 200 low-paying jobs?" Inabinette asked the supervisors.

Traffic

Ron Lentes said the increase in traffic is a major concern. It has been estimated that having the casino in that location will put another 10,000 cars (or trips) on Highway 190 every day. Lentes said the casino will have a 2,500 car parking lot, twice the size of the Wal-Mart/Staples lot in Porterville. Presently about 4,000 cars a day travel past the site. "This site has a blind S-curve at either end. It's a two-lane road that our high school students must travel twice a day." Springville high school students must attend high school in Porterville.

Lentes added that the additional traffic would add about 50,000 tons of pollutants to the air each year, and that Porterville has the fourth worst air quality in the nation and the fourth highest number of people with breathing problems. Finally Lentes said that most gamblers going to Indian casinos live within 50 miles of the casino. "The money comes out of here," he said, referring to the county. "And it's gone forever."

Pollution

Richard Frost said he recently retired to Triple R, a subdivision below Springville. "The idea of putting a casino on 190 is beyond belief," he said, "not to mention putting casinos at the doorstep of quiet communities." Frost said Eagle Mountain took in $30 million last year. "Is there any reason they can't continue to do well [in their present location]?"

Frost said it's a given there will be more traffic and more accidents. He was also concerned about light pollution. "No more starry nights," he said. And water problems - "Lake Success gives the impression there is a real abundance of water in the area but that's not true." Frost said a 100,000 square foot casino resort would produce 66,000 gallons of waste every day and tests have already proven that "soil at the 190 site is poorly suited for urban development. The soil is suited for range land which is what it is."

Security, safety and serenity

<$>Norma Inabinette, professor emeritus from Cal State Fullerton and Springville resident said there is little evidence of any lasting benefits to the public. "They took in $30 million, more than any other business in Tulare County by far," she said. "Why move?" Norma said the tribe says they can't make enough money being located 10 miles back in the foothills from Highway 190. "Their avarice should not be the reason," she said.

Norma said some people say the tribe is very generous, but complained that the locals couldn't even light up Springville for Christmas. "Headlines say, 'The tribe lights up Springville.'" She also complained that, "Whatever their motive, they've never revealed how much they've contributed financially." Inabinette questioned whether the additional purchasing in Tulare County made up for loss of security, safety and serenity.

In a veiled threat the retired professor told the supervisors that Hesperia, Calif. voted just last week to put forth recall efforts to unseat their board of supervisors because of their support for casinos. "I ask you to step up and put a referendum on the next ballot," she said, "and find out. You're supposed to represent the 390,000 citizens of Tulare County." Inabinette said relocating the casino could impact the county for two centuries.

Big money always wins

<$>Steven Thompson, who lives with his wife on an 11-acre ranch about two miles east of the proposed site, said he talked to his neighbors. "They said they didn't want a casino there, but said 'big money always wins.'" Thompson said the quality of life is the biggest issue, and they were frustrated. He said rural Tulare County is disappearing and not coming back.

"Eagle Mountain says they have everything worked out," Thompson said, but added that some of the best laid plans have gone terribly wrong. "Will Eagle Mountain give a written guarantee to mitigate problems? Why do they need to move anyway? I fear the real reason is they don't want the noise, crime, etc. on their property." He asked the board to recommend against the relocation and to send a message to Sacramento. "Tell the tribe to keep it in their own back yard," he said.

Moral issues

<$>"My deepest concern is the moral climate it sets in any community," said Paul Israel of Springville. It depreciates the moral fiber in any area." Israel referred to the Bible, saying "God has called us to pray for men and women in authority." He added that "Gambling is an abomination and pollution to any community and the ones who suffer most are the children." Israel said locating the casino on Highway 190 was like putting up a big sign saying "Anything goes."

Q and A

<$>Ron Relljer of Springville put his opposition into a question and answer format.

Q. Is gambling permitted on the reservation?

A: Yes.

Q. Are casinos permitted on land purchased after 1988?

A. No.

Q. Why are we here?

Relljer said if the winding road to the casino was the problem, "I'd fix that road with money I don't pay taxes on."

He said the board should take no position. "You do not represent them, which they remind you of frequently. Support the people you do represent."

Additional comments

<$>Wesley Numa said, "To sacrifice the pristine environment for this purpose is ludicrous. The tribe already has more money than the 100 members know what to do with."

Gary Ocsenas said, "If they're going to move off the reservation, what does that open up for the rest of California?"

Terese Woodmansee said, "Springville has been the best kept secret for a long time. Do you really think people will be attracted to a place with a Las Vegas type casino?" She said many local and state officials have so easily been bought out by tribes. "I hope you will act with ethics," she said. Kathlene Morgan said a bunch of people went house to house and only found one person who wanted the casino. "You should find out what the community wants - put it on the ballot."

Bill Woodmansee had lots of statistics about gambling addicts, including that 99 percent of addicted gamblers commit crimes, and 100 percent are abusive to elders. He said Gamblers Anonymous has doubled in the last decade and that side effects of gambling include depression, alcoholism, crime and poverty. Joy Collier said she would be one of the people who would have to move. "The quietness of the Valley is special and for it to be taken away so easily would break my heart.

PROPONENTS

Tribal Administration

<$>Dave Nenna said he had just listened to a lot of concerns about the environment, crime, tax payer burdens, water, etc. He said a lot of those things were what they were asking for and investigating. "It wasn't an afterthought to move the casino out there," he said. Nenna said the land was purchased in 1991 and one of the first things they did was to commission an environmental study for a destination resort. He said in 1995 the one well was determined to be adequate to facilitate a 200 room motel but the "tribe was not satisfied and wanted a second well."

Without explaining the gap, he said, "In 1996 we tried again," to launch the resort and "even had some earthwork done." He said they were never challenged, but stopped to "maintain the moral high ground." Instead the tribe built the casino on the reservation. But they did not give up the highway site idea.

Nenna said he commented several years ago that if anyone had any concerns they should visit him in his office. "It's not like we didn't take the effort," he said. "We are mandated under federal law to negotiate in good faith with surrounding neighbors."

Nenna said they commissioned a firm used by the county, to get an unbiased traffic report which they submitted to Caltrans. He touted water processing on the reservation as state-of-the-art and said downward-pointed lights would not take away the pristine night sky.

Nenna said they put "a lot of money back into the business." He noted that workers comp just took a 100 percent increase, and that health, dental and life insurance for employees is paid 100 percent by the tribe. "This $30 million figure dwindles by half," he said.

Nenna said the tribe has always made donations and , "We're committed to our friends." He gave the example of the senior gleaners who asked for $250 to repair a vehicle. The tribe gave them $10,000. "They were there for us before gaming," Nenna told the supervisors. He said the tribe helps the schools and has no political motive.

"We're just as concerned about pristine scenery. My ancestors probably said the same thing when you were building your houses - messing up the pristine Valley. At no time did I see anybody jumping up and down to assist the tribe when we had nothing." Nenna said in the military he saw oppressed people at their worst and saw the iron curtain come down. "It's fine if you do it on the reservation and keep your little brown people up there," Nenna said, suggesting that concerns about relocating the casino were racially motivated.

"Yes, gambling does have a dark side. But if it's so illegal and immoral, why not take it away?" He said, since it's on the books, the tribe will take advantage of it. "It's not like people are getting rich." He said for them the benefits far outweighed the negatives because poverty breeds crime and crime statistics on the reservation for felonies were down from 381 in 1994 to 25 in 1996. He said by moving out to Highway 190 they would enhance law enforcement and firefighting capability as well as emergency services.

"We have 55,341 acres, but it's not all suitable for building," Nenna said. He said their choice would have been to purchase some flat land in the center of Porterville. He said he was responsible for all the commercial development on the reservation and all their buildings met or exceeded local building codes. He said this meeting might be for naught because they still have to find out if the land is suitable for building.

Nenna said the casino provides all kinds of entry level jobs that "build confidence to go out into the big world."

Regarding taxes, Nenna said the tribe sends an enormous amount of money to the state, which the state then gives a portion of back to the county. He said they battled in federal court to "be masters of our own finances," but lost.

He said Visalia, Tulare and Porterville "are growing by leaps and bounds. We'll see it all merge. It's just a fact of life as people want a rural life style."

More jobs

<$>Gil Jaramillo, the executive director of the Tulare-Kings Hispanic Chamber of Commerce said creating the casino resort would assist economic development in the eastern portion of Tulare County. He said jobs generate income, then spending, and families would have health benefits while there would be entertainment for tourists.

Trouble with "pristine"

<$>Carolyn Giddings, secretary for the Tulare County Democratic Club and a Success Valley resident for more than 35 years, said the tribe has been a good neighbor. She said she had not noticed any changes in the South Fork of the Tule River which comes up in winter and goes dry in summer. Giddings said the major change was in the number of drunk drivers, saying they see more in a day than they used to see in a year. "We even had one end up in our back yard and we're a quarter mile off the road," she said. Giddings said the area wasn't pristine 50 years ago when she was in high school. Pristine in the dictionary means "original purity." Giddings said the lake was man-made and people lived in the area so it wasn't pristine. But, she said the Indian reservation road was closer to pristine and would be next to impossible to improve being located in a rock canyon next to a river.

"The tribe has proven itself worthy and there is no reason not to believe," she said.

Maples reminded people, as he had at the beginning of the two-hour hearing, that the board has made no decision and has received no monies from the tribal council. He said their decision would be announced publicly at a later date, to be posted.

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