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Tribe sues for casino

JAMUL, Calif. – A federally recognized tribe has filed a complaint against California’s highway management agency alleging it is imposing state laws and threatening to restrict access to a proposed casino site on sovereign Indian land.

Additionally, the five-member council of the Jamul Indian Village claims that the California Department of Transportation has been successfully pressured to halt their casino plans by non-Native residents living in the rural bedroom community that surrounds the casino site and their reservation 25 minutes east of downtown San Diego.

The transportation department that goes by the name “Caltrans” said it has some jurisdiction over the construction of the project bolstered by potential safety concerns on a state highway that could stem from the casino’s construction and operation.

The complaint filed in U.S. Southern District Court in October is the latest development in a heated saga playing out in casino-heavy San Diego County for nearly a decade.

“It feels like it’s been going on since I was a little girl,” said Erica M. Pinto, vice chairwoman for the Jamul tribal council.

According to the complaint, Caltrans threatened the 50-member tribe with blocking access to the reservation if it proceeds with its casino plans unless a permit application, environmental studies and detailed construction plans are cleared by the department. Those requirements, the tribe said, are not typically compulsory for tribes opening a casino.

“Why are we having such a hard time opening up a casino,” asked Jamul Tribal Councilman Richard Tellow. “The Jamul Rule comes into effect,” he added, referring to the term that encapsulates what he believes is the systematic political pressure unfairly stalling the project.

The tribe had initially proposed a large hotel and Las Vegas-style gaming casino after it signed a gaming compact with Gov. Gray Davis in 1999. But it has since scaled back those plans to propose a Class II, or bingo style casino, after resistance from Davis to support a 100-acre fee to trust transfer to accommodate the larger casino complex, according to the complaint. The Jamul reservation sits on two parcels totaling about six acres. Class II gaming is permitted in California without a state compact under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Caltrans Public Information Officer Edward Cartagena declined to comment on the complaint citing the ongoing litigation. Instead, he provided an Oct. 8 letter penned by a Caltrans attorney to the tribe that refutes the tribe’s claims but not specifically it’s compliant.

“The Department cannot allow an unsafe condition to exist on the state highway system and we are obligated to take action to prevent such a condition, limiting or preventing access until the traffic study is done and impacts mitigated,” the letter said.

The would-be casino entrance abuts a treacherous segment of California State Highway 94 cornered off by blind spots in both directions.

“What everybody is saying is that it’s an unsafe highway. It is. But why hasn’t Caltrans mitigated for stoplights and turn lanes,” Carlene A. Chamberlain said, a Jamul councilwoman. Robert Mesa, another tribal councilmember said the tribe was willing to mitigate impacts.

The Caltrans letter also said that the documents were not a “special requirement for the tribe but is the method the department uses for all development, public or private, that has impacts on the state highway system.”

But the Jamul leadership suspects that intense opposition by the group, Jamulians Against the Casino and a San Diego County elected supervisor that lives in the community lobbied Caltrans to single out the tribe.

Dianne Jacob, the supervisor and a staunch opponent of the casino said in an e-mail statement through her spokeswoman, that she has not lobbied CalTrans.

“If I didn’t live in Jamul, I would still be opposed to this project. It is dangerous, deadly and incompatible with the community,” she said. Jacob has half a dozen Indian casinos in her district.

Jumal Indians also said that the opposition group has harassed and shadowed Jamul Indians and their contractors. Graffiti opposing the casino marks half-built retention walls on the reservation. An e-mail sent to the group for comment was not returned.

The complaint is asking the court to both settle the matter and stop Caltrans from restricting access to the reservation.