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Governor Davis leaves Miwok highway access bill unsigned

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SHINGLE SPRINGS, Calif. - A Sierra-foothills tribe suffered a temporary setback when Gov. Gray Davis rejected a bill which passed the legislature with overwhelming support.

The bill sought to give the 312-member Shingle Springs Band of Miwok the right to deal directly with the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) to build a tribally financed $3.7 million highway off ramp.

The only access into the property is on a road owned by the Grassy Run Homeowners Association - a local citizens group that has restricted the tribe from any kind of economic development.

The Miwok say they have been "landlocked" on their 168 acres since the mid-1960s when U.S. 50 was re-routed, effectively cutting off other access roads to tribal property. Through an allotment-style agreement where land was deeded to an individual tribal family, the tribe lost acreage on the south side of the newly expanded highway and found itself without public access to tribal lands.

Tribal sources say the state promised to build an underpass when it re-routed the highway. Now, 35 years later, the tribe just wants the right to contract directly with CalTrans.

Part of the concern is a proposed $100 million tribal casino. Local governments and residents have said they fear it will despoil the rural nature of the area.

The tribe sought to build an off ramp from U.S. 50, which passes only a few hundred yards from tribal headquarters. The tribe has used the road since 1916 when the federal government formally established its present land base. Several years ago a district court judge awarded control of the road to the homeowners who are responsible for its maintenance.

Several fruitless attempts were made by the tribe to gain joint ownership of the road. The Miwok even offered to help make repairs and pay for the majority of the improvements.

Elaine Whitehurst, executive government liaison for Shingle Springs, says tribal members have been subject to harassment.

Whitehurst says tensions between the tribe and the homeowners reached a fevered pitch last year at the height of the battle over the planned casino. She says homeowners verbally harassed tribal children and then moved on to other means of coercion such as placing tacks in the road and sending threatening letters to tribal members.

Recently the Grassy Run Homeowners Association re-paved the road and placed 14 new speed bumps on the road, a number Shingle Springs tribal members say is excessive for the short distance covered by the road.

"They have restricted access to the tribe and we can't have any form of economic development here because the homeowners association won't let anything big enough to carry heavy equipment in. They're controlling us and it goes beyond gambling," Whitehurst says.

In addition, Whitehurst says the tribe must pay more than $5,000 a month to rent space for the local Indian health clinic. A nearby clinic in Placerville closed down earlier this year and the Shingle Springs clinic is ill-equipped to handle the influx of new patients, many of whom are diabetics in need of care, she said.

Whitehurst says allowing the tribe to build an expanded facility on the reservation could solve this problem.

Where will the tribe get the money? Whitehurst answers that projected earnings of the casino would provide more than adequate funding for both projects.

The Shingle Springs Miwok decided the best way to ease tensions was to exercise tribal sovereignty and contract with CalTrans to build another access road into the reservation. When it was revealed that the tribe planned to finance the endeavor with a casino the homeowners protested.

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Penny LeDoux, president of the Grassy Run Homeowners Association admits there were tensions between the tribe and some local homeowners but insists her group does not oppose the casino outright. She feels the main problem is the location of the casino, which at present, would only be accessible through Grassy Run.

LeDoux makes the point that the access road is only 18 feet wide which she feels could not hold commercial traffic.

She says she would have no problem with the casino on the far side of the highway, which she claims has already been zoned for commercial use. She claims she has talked with the Placer County Board of Supervisors about a casino at the alternate location.

The problem is that state law prohibits newly acquired trust lands from being used for gaming. This would have to happen for the tribe to place a casino on the opposite side of the highway. LeDoux feels this is a unique circumstance because of the loss of tribal land when U.S. 50 was re-routed.

"We're working with the tribe now. We only opposed their bill because it didn't allow us to have any input on the matter," LeDoux says.

The tribe lobbied to get a bill to the California Legislature. In the Senate, the bill passed 22-6. One of those voting against the measure was Tim Leslie who represents the district.

Jed Medefind, press secretary for the senator says Leslie has no problems with the tribe. He says Leslie feels if the road had only been for access, he would have had no problem with it. What worried Leslie was the proposed casino.

"This is a small gold-rush type of community where there hasn't been much development and the casino would severely impact the way of life," Medefind says.

Tribal sources disagree. They say Shingle Springs is already being impacted by several housing developments turning the area into an outer suburb of nearby Sacramento.

In the Assembly only one representative, Rico Oller, R-San Andreas, cast an after-the-fact vote against the measure. The final tally was 66-1.

After its passage in closing hours of the session in early September, the measure was sent to Gov. Davis. More than 40 lawmakers signed a letter to the governor urging his approval. On Sept, 26 Davis returned the bill unsigned.

Hillary McLean, a spokeswoman for the governor, says this means the bill can be re-introduced after going through special hearings to clear up concerns.

McLean says Davis' principle concern is the hastiness in which the bill was put together. She says he has been consistent about rejecting bills sent to him at the 11th hour.

"It's not clear whether the governor disagreed with the content of the bill, but he feels that there should have been more community input ... . He just thought it was amended too quickly without addressing local concerns."

Though disappointed by the governor's initial rejection, Whitehurst says she understands his reasons. She agrees with Davis' reasoning in that the bill was constructed too hastily, but she says the tribe only regards this as a minor setback.

"We've waited 35 years to get this done and we're not through trying yet. We're happy we had such widespread support from the legislature. With this support we feel it's only a matter of time before we can finally get the access we deserve."