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North Fork casino in Madera getting closer to approval

Tribal Chairwoman Maryann McGovran, left, Elaine Bethel-Fink, tribal vice chairperson, center, and former tribal council member Patrick Beihn, right, talk in 2014 about the land that belongs to the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians of California west of Highway 99 and north of Avenue 17.
Tribal Chairwoman Maryann McGovran, left, Elaine Bethel-Fink, tribal vice chairperson, center, and former tribal council member Patrick Beihn, right, talk in 2014 about the land that belongs to the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians of California west of Highway 99 and north of Avenue 17. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

Proposition 48, a referendum on so-called “off-reservation gaming” that voters rejected in 2014, likely will not create much more than a few years of delays for the North Fork Mono Rancheria Indians’ casino plans.

And, after 13 years of trying to get a casino open, the North Fork Mono can wait a little longer, tribal officials say.

The North Fork Rancheria and partner Station Casinos want to build a gaming complex with 2,000 slot machines, 40 table games and a hotel on 305 acres along Highway 99 near Avenue 18 just north of Madera. The site is 36 miles from the rancheria.

Their casino compact was the target of the state referendum. It was heavily opposed by other gaming tribes, most notably the nearby Chukchansi and Table Mountain rancherias. About 60 percent of California voters voted against Proposition 48 in opposition to the compact establishing the Madera “off-reservation” casino.

But the referendum had no binding power.

“It allows voters to express their opinion on the issue, but it isn’t terribly unusual that in the end it’s just kind of a nonbinding kind of statement,” said Kenneth Hansen, a Fresno State professor and coauthor of “New Politics of Indian Gaming.”

Over the next couple months a new tribal compact likely will be approved. Whether it’s ultimately approved by the state or federal government, it would offer a green light for a new casino along the west side of Highway 99. The only chances to stop it are two lawsuits.

In one, a Madera County Superior Court judge ruled that the governor does have authority to approve the compact. Officials with Stand Up California, the group that backed the state referendum against the casino, appealed the case to the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno, where it is under review.

In the second active case filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Stand Up California and the Chukchansi wanted an injunction against the casino compact approval because of the federal government’s failure to follow environmental laws and other issues in placing the land into federal trust. Judge Beryl Howell declined to issue the injunction, but the case continues.

In November, a U.S. District Court judge in Fresno ordered Gov. Jerry Brown and the tribe back into negotiations, which ended without a settlement. In January, the judge ordered each side to present a compact to a mediator.

In a document filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the North Fork mediator, Zela G. Claiborne, “notified the parties that she had selected North Fork’s compact as the compact that best comports with the law.”

She gave the state until April 11 to consent to the compact. If the state doesn’t support it, the tribe can take the compact to the U.S. interior secretary for approval. It will then be up to the federal government to develop procedures for North Fork to run its casino.

With two active lawsuits remaining, opponents of the North Fork casino project still think they can stop it.

“I don’t think it’s an empty hope,” said Pastor Randy Brannon of Grace Community Church in Madera. “We’re into our 12th year (opposing it) and nothing is built yet.”

Meanwhile, a U.S. District Court judge in Sacramento this month ordered the state back into negotiations on the Enterprise casino in Yuba County. After a compact was approved for North Fork and the Yuba County casino, the state Legislature approved the North Fork plan but never made a decision on the Yuba County site.

The judge in Sacramento used the Legislature’s inaction to order a similar 60-day negotiation between the governor and the Oroville-area tribe. It will lead to a similar call for each side to submit proposed compacts.

Even though the lawsuits and mediation are pending, preconstruction activities soon could get underway on the Madera casino site, land that was put into trust for the North Fork tribe by the federal government. No building can occur until the compact is approved and the lawsuits decided.

The tribe will start with a smaller casino than the full build-out and a few restaurants. Because of the lawsuits, there still is no timeline for construction, but North Fork tribal officials are proposing a phased-in plan when casino construction begins.

“We just have to get through all the court-ordered proceedings, so there is nothing else we can do until we are done with that process,” said Maryann McGovran, North Fork Mono tribal chairwoman.

When the time comes, “we are going to do it in phases,” she said,

Eventually, the hotel and casino will be similar in size to Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino.

“We’re not sure how big it will start, and we can’t say when it will start,” she said.

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

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