Steve Ruddock Elk Grove California tribal casino

It’s been a turbulent week for the Wilton Rancheria tribe and the citizens of Elk Grove, California. A tribal casino hangs in the balance.

The latest update on this story has the Department of the Interior (finally) placing the tribe’s land into trust.

But even with this positive development, the Wilton Rancheria will still have to overcome several hurdles before construction on the Elk Grove casino can officially begin.

The complicated history of the Elk Grove casino project

To understand the issues surrounding the Wilton Rancheria tribe’s Elk Grove casino project, let’s examine the history of the tribe.

The Wilton Rancheria moniker is a modern creation, as the tribe comprises the Me-Wuk Indian Community of the Wilton Rancheria and the Wilton Miwok Rancheria tribes.

These communities were stripped of tribal status in 1959. The Wilton Rancheria tribe was federally recognized in 2009.

Both of the original tribes gradually sold their tribal lands to private citizens after they lost federal status.

When the tribe was recognized in 2009, the government included a stipulation that the landless tribe could purchase land at a later date that could be placed in trust. Being a federally recognized sovereign tribe and having land placed in trust are the two key requirements for building a tribal casino.

HHC and the city of Elk Grove

Enter Elk Grove and the Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC).

Elk Grove wasn’t the Wilton Rancheria’s first choice for a tribal casino, but everything seemed to be going smoothly after the tribe (along with its gaming partner, Boyd Gaming) agreed to buy 36 acres of land from HHC.

The land was part of a stalled outlet mall project, so it wasn’t surprising when Elk Grove’s city council approved the sale to the Wilton Rancheria.

With a $400 million tribal casino planned for right next door, HHC agreed to resume the project after the sale of the land due to the perceived benefits of its proximity to the casino.

Last week, Elk Grove’s city council voted to rescind the agreed-upon changes to the original HHC proposal (effectively blocking the casino) after a petition emerged that would have required a voter referendum to be held on the casino.

Just days later, the Department of the Interior placed the 36 acres into trust, which means the Wilton Rancheria no longer needs the express approval of the city to build on its tribal lands.

That said, there are still a number of factors that will need to be resolved, including reaching a gaming compact with the state of California.

Remaining problems for the casino

In an interview with the Sacramento Bee, Indian gambling lawyer Howard Dickstein said the recent vote by the city council could still derail the project.

Dickstein pointed to a Jan. 10 letter from the California Department of Justice to the Bureau of Indian Affairs that noted “[The] development agreement has not been amended, and its restrictions currently encumber the property.”

In Dickstein’s expert opinion, this “may affect what activities can occur on the land while it’s in trust.”

Or, as Boyd Gaming Executive Vice President Brian Larson put it, “There’s still a lot more to do.”

Steve Ruddock
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