The federal Department of the Interior has signed off on the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians' gaming compact allowing a resort and casino north of Madera on Highway 99.
In the Federal Register, the 20-year compact became effective Tuesday and expires on Dec. 31, 2033. The compact allows the North Fork casino to have 2,000 gaming devices. The casino also will have 50 gaming tables. The tribe plans a $250 million project on 305 acres.
Supporters of the compact say the federal announcement means that the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians can begin building. But opponents say the casino may be put on hold pending a state referendum next year. If enough signatures have been gathered to force a referendum, voters will get a chance to accept or reject the compact.
The casino compact went through a process that twice required the federal government and Gov. Jerry Brown's approval. It also was approved by the state Legislature.
Publication in the Federal Register marks the end of a nine-year process, said Elaine Bethel-Fink, tribal chair for the North Fork Mono Rancheria Indians.
"This is an important day for North Fork, Madera County, and poorer tribes across the state who will directly benefit from the jobs, economic activity, and public funding this compact delivers," she said. "Now at last we can all focus on coming together, moving forward, and clearing any remaining obstacles to delivering on the true promise of Indian gaming: jobs, tribal self-sufficiency and community funding."
The casino site is 36 miles southwest of the rancheria, and groups opposing it have gathered signatures seeking a statewide referendum because it is "off-reservation." They say Proposition 1-A, which passed 13 years ago, allows Indian gaming only on a tribe's originally restored lands.
To stop the project, they have gathered 800,000 signatures that are being verified by county elections offices across California. Opponents need at least 504,760 signatures to put the referendum on the ballot next year. Verification may take until January.
Fresno, Madera, Tulare and Kings counties accounted for about 36,000 signatures, local elections officials say.
The compact would be suspended if enough signatures are verified to trigger the referendum, , said Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up California, which supports the referendum.
A letter from California Secretary of State Debra Bowen to Paula Hart, director of the Office of Indian Gaming in the U.S. Department of Interior, says a suspension would be in effect until the election result is known.
"If the referendum qualifies ... the part of the statute ratifying the compact will be stayed/suspended until the voters have voted to either reject it or adopt it," Bowen wrote.
Under the compact, the Chukchansi tribe will get money from the North Fork tribe to compensate for casino revenue losses. Chukchansi officials say a study commissioned by the tribe shows that Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino would lose 38% of its revenue if the North Fork casino is built.
Estimates of the revenue the project can generate range from around $50 million (the Bureau of Indian Affairs' guess) to $100 million (what Madera County officials peg it at).
Under the compact with the North Fork tribe, Madera County will get about $4.4 million in annual revenue from the casino. That money will improve public safety services, county officials say.
The compact will not only fund Madera County programs, but a portion also will go to the Wiyot tribe on environmentally sensitive Humboldt Bay as compensation for not building a casino.
Earlier this month, Brown repeated his support for the North Fork compact.
So far, more than half the money underwriting the referendum campaign -- $1.075 million -- is from Table Mountain Rancheria, the Fresno County tribe that runs a rival casino near Friant. Another $868,000 is from firms involved in last year's restructuring of bonds for the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino.
North Fork Mono Indians say the land near Highway 99 north of Madera was traditional land and that their claim is backed by state and federal officials, tribe spokesman Charles Altekruse said. They also contend that their rancheria has 61 acres designated for housing only, under federal Housing and Urban Development rules.
"All we want to do is get to work, and we feel that it is unfair for anybody to attempt to change the rules and move the goal posts at the very end just to delay things further for their own benefit," he said.
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