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Casino Expansion Raises Stakes for Tribes, Towns

San Bernardino dispute highlights tensions between Indian operations, neighbors.

May 05, 2003|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

The marchers paced ever so slowly across Victoria Avenue, as traffic backed up for blocks. For hours, anxious gamblers leaned on their horns, cursed loudly and waved their fists in front of the San Manuel Indian Casino five miles east of San Bernardino.

Still, the 100 demonstrators shuffled across the street. Their signs read: "San Manuel: Isn't profit of $100 million a year enough?" and referring to the voter-approved measure that allows Indian gambling: "Don't make us sorry."

"The Indians don't [care] about us," said Greg Gridley, who lives a block from the casino. "So from now on, they have to go through our sovereign land to get to their sovereign land."

Tribal elder Pauline Murillo, who watched the noisy procession from a few yards away, shook her head. "This is disgusting," she said. "We were here first."

One hundred and twelve years after the San Manuel were herded from the Coachella Valley onto a desolate, mountainous reservation, tribal leaders say they can finally determine their own destiny -- and that destiny includes expanding their casino by 310,000 square feet and adding an events center and six-story parking structure. It's the least they should be allowed, they say, given their history, the loss of their lands and untold loss of life.

Not so fast, say surrounding communities. If the San Manuels truly want to be integrated into American society, they must also pay the price: Pay taxes, follow local zoning and building codes and discuss their expansion plans with local leaders and school districts before unveiling them.

But Native American tribes operate on sovereign land. They don't pay taxes. They don't have to follow state, county or city laws. Environmental laws are theirs to bypass. Yet they are entitled to full service from police and fire departments, hospitals, roads and flood-control systems.

The recent San Bernardino demonstration is typical of conflicts playing out across California between Indian tribes that view gambling palaces as compensation for the past and neighbors who want a say in how those casinos affect their communities in the present.

Pressure from Boom

For tribes that had been forced to live for generations in poverty on desolate lands, the booming casino industry means enhanced wealth and investment and improvements to tribal infrastructure, education and health care.

For local authorities and reservation neighbors, the casinos can mean more traffic, rowdy visitors and more pressure on overburdened police, firefighters and medical facilities.

In Sonoma County, the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria are proposing a 1,700-acre casino and hotel complex in the flight path of migrating birds, which has run into opposition from neighbors and environmentalists. In Plymouth, a town of 900 people south of Sacramento, residents fear the effect of a 120,000-square-foot casino proposed by the Band of Miwok Indians.

In Riverside County, officials are worried that growing numbers of uninsured gambling hall workers and patrons in need of medical help will sap the resources of the county health system.

Then there is the Morongo Band of Mission Indians. They plan to build a 23-story resort hotel in the desert 15 miles west of Palm Springs, 20 minutes from the nearest Riverside County Fire Department ladder truck. County officials say the tribe's fire department is inadequate to handle incidents involving large crowds at a high-rise hotel on the reservation.

The proposals come at a time when 61 tribes statewide are renegotiating their gambling deals with Gov. Gray Davis, who wants $1.5 billion from them to help ease the state's projected $35-billion budget shortfall. Also at stake is whether cities and counties should be compensated so they can better cope with the developments.

Tribal-state agreements already require tribes to contribute a percentage of their proceeds to an Indian Gaming Special Distribution Fund. Among other things, the money can go to fix roads, to treat compulsive gamblers and to ease financial hardship on ambulance services.

But the Legislature has yet to agree on how to divide that money to reach areas that need it.

In the meantime, plans for new casinos are stacking up on drawing boards in such regions as San Bernardino and Riverside counties, which already are home to many of the state's most prosperous tribal casinos. The projects would be sprawling, opulent complexes designed to attract millions of patrons from Southern California who might otherwise gamble in Las Vegas.

Facing the wave of new casinos, Riverside County recently developed a policy for coping with the expected drain on local services. But because the tribes can make decisions on their land without interference from government agencies, all the county could do was strongly encourage the reservations to be good neighbors.

"Of course we're concerned," said Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione. "But they don't have to conform to many things we want."

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