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California Assembly votes against garbage dump at Pala

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FALLBROOK, Calif. - To the Pala Indian tribe, Chokla Mountain is where Taakwic resides. Taakwic is the most powerful spirit in the Pala religion. They consider his home sacred.

When a consortium of investors and a developer wanted to turn the home of Taakwic into a garbage landfill, Pala had to turn to a more terrestrial authority, the California state Assembly.

The Assembly voted 49-7 in favor of a bill that would prevent the California State Integrated Waste Management Board from issuing a permit to Gregory Canyon, Ltd., the consortium, for a landfill on the slopes of Chokla Mountain and adjoining Gregory Canyon.

The proposed garbage landfill site is adjacent to the Pala Indian reservation, about two miles from tribal headquarters.

"We've been involved in fighting this landfill project for 10 years," said Tribal Councilman Stanley McGarr.

He said the idea for a new landfill site originated in the mid-1980s when the San Diego County Board of Supervisors began looking for a place to accommodate county waste needs. Gregory Canyon was not on the initial list of 18 potential sites.

That changed in 1990 when officials from the more populated southern portion of San Diego county did not wish to have it in their area, so the more rural north county was chosen for the site.

Local environmentalists were concerned with the impact the garbage landfill would have on the San Luis Rey River that runs through Gregory Canyon as well as general pollution in the rural area.

In 1994, after several appeals by several tribes and local environmental groups, the San Diego County Supervisors voted to reject the landfill. The consortium placed a proposal called Proposition C on the ballot to override the supervisors. The measure passed overwhelmingly.

Matt Back, legislative director for Assemblyman Bruce Thompson, R-Fallbrook, said that Proposition C was passed because the voters were not given the full information on the religious importance of the site. Back said he thought the consortium did an "end run" around the voters by withholding this vital piece of information.

The Pala tribe had tried all along to get involved, but lacked the necessary funding. It finally appealed to Thompson who decided to introduce a bill.

"I think he (Thompson) was offended at the idea that they were going to do this on sacred ground. Regardless of what religion you are, there needs to be a certain amount of respect," Back said regarding Thompson's involvement.

Thompson's bill ended up stuck in the California Senate Environmental Quality Committee. This was seen as a death knell for the bill. While in the Senate, President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, decided to revive the measure.

Dave Sebeck, Burton's press secretary, said his boss met several Pala tribal members a few years back while working on the gaming compact that bears the tribe's name. Sebeck said Burton became very concerned when he heard Thompson's bill had stalled in committee.

Burton needed to find a sponsor in the Assembly who was sponsoring a bill under the same legal code - all bills must fall into one of several categories - as the Thompson bill.

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Doug White, a consultant for Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, said his boss had a bill that dealt with some technical aspect of Indian gaming that fell into the same category. Burton asked if Cardoza would be able to do a "gut and amend" to the bill - a legal procedure where the contents of a categorized bill can be changed.

White said the contents of the new bill were practically identical to the original Thompson bill and was passed by the Assembly. The majority of the seven who voted against it were from southern San Diego County.

The most vocal was Assemblywoman Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel. Calls to Bates were not returned, though she was quoted in an AP story saying she felt the 1994 vote should be binding.

Opponents have argued the Pala tribe is attempting to open a $100 million casino and wondered aloud why the tribe is not worried about the potential impact.

"The casino will be on the opposite side of the mountain from the sacred site," McGarr said. "The two things are not comparable. There's a hell of a lot of difference between a garbage dump and a casino."

McGarr said the consortium attempting the project consists of several partners and a single developer, Richard Chase Construction. The largest partners are from out of state. Among other names is Boston-based John Hancock Mutual Life.

Irwin Heller is a Quincy, Mass., lawyer and investor in the project. He said that while he was aware of the controversy surrounding the project, he was not at liberty to discuss it with the press.

Calls to Carlsbad-based developer Dick Chase were not returned.

What is known is that members of Gregory Canyon Ltd. spent more than $800,000 on Proposition C. No one involved with California Landfill was willing to speculate on actual investor losses.

As for the Assembly bill, it must now go on to Gov. Gray Davis for approval. Roger Salazar, a spokesman for Davis, said the governor has until the end of September to decide. Salazar said he could not speak for the governor on what his action would be.

Several other area tribes regard the site as sacred and have been involved in the proceedings. Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga tribe said the his tribe has been involved in the Gregory Canyon issue for 10 years. He was in Sacramento for the legislative vote and is satisfied with the outcome.

"We are extremely pleased to see the willingness of legislators as being open to and responding to tribal religious-based concerns," Macarro said.

However, Macarro said he thinks this may only be the tip of the iceberg. He said as urban areas continue to expand into formerly rural California lands, there will be other cases like this one.

"These new communities will need somewhere to take their trash. It's only a matter of time before they choose another sacred site for this purpose," Macarro said.

For the moment, a Pala tribal member who did not want to be identified, said he was hopeful the Assembly had sided with the tribes.

"Taakwic couldn't come home to a dirty house now, could he?"