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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM

Neighbors Have Reservations About Tribe's Plan to Build Casino

Gambling: Critics say Jamul Indians' proposal for a multistory complex will ruin the area's rural character.

August 20, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JAMUL, Calif. — The Jamul Indians may be one of the state's smallest tribes, but they have big plans for a tiny six-acre reservation in the dry, brush-covered hills of eastern San Diego County.

In the next year, the 56-member tribe plans to build a multistory casino on four acres of its reservation land.

Its members envision a bustling gambling hall with slot machines, card tables, a restaurant and hotel rooms that would generate $5 million in monthly revenue--money that would pay for new homes, a sewage system and college educations.

"We could do so much for our people," said 45-year-old Carlene Chamberlain, vice chairwoman of the tribe. "I see a nice facility that my people can enjoy for nice dinners and employment and education and a far better life than I had growing up."

But the plan faces fierce opposition from neighbors, who fear a towering casino jutting incongruously from undeveloped hills would ruin Jamul's rural character.

They worry the project would increase traffic on the winding two-lane highway that cuts through Jamul, a bedroom community of 10,000 dotted with horse ranches and gated estates.

"Jamul is country," said Jackie Brownlow, a 35-year-old horse trainer and longtime resident who opposes any new development in the area. "I just don't like to see the growth because I've been here so long. It makes me sad."

The Jamul Indian reservation, located about 20 miles east of San Diego, sits on a sloping hill bordered by cow pastures and an old cemetery where many of the tribe's ancestors are buried.

San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob says it is the wrong location for a casino. She said opponents are considering legal action to try to block the project.

"A high-rise casino plus a hotel is totally out of character with this community," said Jacob, who lives on a ranch near Jamul. "I respect the rights of the tribe, but they have a responsibility to not ruin a community."

Two years ago, California voters approved a measure allowing gambling on Indian reservations. But Proposition 5 was struck down by the courts because it violated state law banning Las Vegas-style casinos.

Proposition 1A, approved this year, resolved the problem by amending the law and enacted casino operating guidelines, or compacts, signed by Gov. Gray Davis and 58 California tribes, including the Jamul Indians.

The tribe would become the fourth in San Diego County to open a casino. The Barona, Viejas and Sycuan reservations--which each boast hundreds of acres--have gambling operations.

The Jamul Indians, however, have only six acres--of which nearly two are taken up by the cemetery. Though the tribe recently purchased 100 acres of adjacent grazing land, the property is not approved for gaming.

To fit a casino on so little land, about 10 small houses built years ago by the federal government would be moved to the adjacent acreage.

The land would also be used for casino parking, and, to appease some critics, tribal leaders have agreed to spend $2 million to build a new fire station there as well.

Reacting to complaints from neighbors who feared a casino up to 10 stories high, tribal members scaled back the plan to a two- or three-story casino and stress that they are trying to devise an architectural plan that will blend in with the natural landscape.

The Jamul (pronounced ha-MOOL) proposal is backed by two out-of-state developers, Kean-Argovitz Resorts of Texas and Lakes Gaming Inc. of Minnesota. They hope to break ground in about a year.

Jacob argues that rather than build the casino, the tribe should take advantage of a revenue-sharing clause in the gaming compact that allows smaller tribes to tap profits earned by other Indian casinos.

"It's the wrong location and the precise reason the compact allows for revenue sharing," she said.

But Chamberlain, who recalls an impoverished childhood growing up on the reservation without running water, said the tribe needs money from its own casino to build new homes and provide a secure financial future for its children.

"I want the chance for my people--for my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren--to have an opportunity to do more than just settle for the minimum," said Chamberlain, a dispatcher for the San Diego Fire Department.

Tribe member Rod Wilson said no one on the reservation believes Indian gaming is going to be a savior. But, he said: "It's a way of getting out of a hole."

The Jamul Indians, who trace their ancestry to the Kumeyaay Indians who inhabited San Diego County for thousands of years, say they have worked hard to address community concerns and have won over some supporters.

"I'm for it," said Arturo Juerta, a 28-year-old handyman who has lived in Jamul most of his life. "Every other reservation has one; just because the rich folk don't want it is no reason to keep it out."

Standing outside a small shopping center in Jamul's downtown, 40-year-old woodcutter Chris Neinast lamented the growth around his town. But he believes the Jamul Indians have been pushed around long enough.

"I just see that the Indians are getting back what was taken away from them," Neinast said.

Anthropologist Florence Shipek, who researched bloodlines to help the tribe win federal recognition in 1981, said that is precisely what happened to the small band around the turn of the century.

"They were pushed out of their own land," Shipek said. "The only place the Indians had to go for refuge was the cemetery there at Jamul."

In her view, Shipek said, putting a casino on the small reservation will alter the town's character. But she added that suburbanites who have moved there over the years have already chipped away at Jamul's rural charm.

"Putting the casino there will make it quite different," she said, "but the difference has already been made by the whites."

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