As Elk Grove-Wilton Rancheria casino litigation plods along, planned 2020 opening date evaporating

One of the numerous artistic renderings of  Wilton Rancheria's proposed $500 million resort casino in Elk Grove. |  Early this yea...

One of the numerous artistic renderings of  Wilton Rancheria's proposed $500 million resort casino in Elk Grove. | 

Early this year, a published story featured an interview with Raymond "Chuckie" Hitchcock, Chairman of the Wilton Rancheria on the prospects of their proposed $500 million casino resort in Elk Grove. The focus of the Elk Grove Citizen story, which was published before Howard Hughes Corporation's announcement of the demolition of their unfinished Outlet Collection at Elk Grove shopping center, was how quickly the project was progressing. 

In glowing terms, Hitchcock expressed confidence that construction of the $500 million gaming facility and hotel could start sometime this year with an opening next year. Hitchcock told the Citizen there was "no definitive date yet, but we’re looking at early 2019 to begin this process, and it’s slated for completion by late 2020.”

Aside from some routine geological testing in January, the only activity at the Highway 99 and Grant Line Road project was the demolition of the adjacent shopping center. That has been the only visible and reported activity at the 36-acre site so it looks as though Hitchcock's aggressive prediction of completion in the next 18 months will be unfulfilled.

Even though Hitchcock painted a confident picture, chances are even he knew that was unrealistic. Readers may recall when the news of the casino went public three years ago this month, Hitchcock and then Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis held an informational meeting where Hitchcock noted it would take five to seven years before construction started.

With three years gone from that statement, Hitchcock's timeframe is quickly diminishing. 

Given the land for the casino was placed into federal trust in the waning days of the Obama administration, it would seem the project had the green light. Instead, the project is at a standstill. 

The primary reason is the on-going litigation initiated by the casino watchdog group Stand Up For California. Since the announcement of the casino, SUFC has launched an all-out legal battle.

Its first legal action came in early 2017 when SUFC challenged the process where the land purchased for the Wilton Rancheria by Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming from the Howard Hughes company at the now-demolished Outlet Collection at Elk Grove. SUFC asserted the process in the waning hours of the Obama administration to place the land into federal trust - a condition needed for casinos on non-traditional reservation land - violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998.

Even though SUFC lost that battle, in the ruling Washington DC U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden left an opening. McFadden allowed SUFC to request and review the so-called privilege log.

Based on that review, SUFC filed further arguments on June 13 further challenging the project. The filing can be viewed here.  

The plaintiff's arguments against the Wilton Rancheria, the U.S. Dept of Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs are that the decision should be reversed on numerous administrative errors in the approval process. Among the mistakes were the environmental impact study used for the Elk Grove property was the same report used for the first site selected for the casino in Galt, Calif.

Additionally, it is argued that the public was inadequately notified of the actions. The filing says "Had BIA provided the public with proper notice when it changed the proposed action to a casino in Elk Grove and offered the opportunity for public comment on a revised draft EIS or supplemental EIS, BIA could have addressed the deficiencies. Although that approach may have delayed a decision by several months, it would have given the public adequate notice and allowed for a legally sufficient EIS."

Also of interest is the plaintiff's argument that the effects on water supply were not addressed. They argue that the water analysis for the casino was the one generated for the former shopping center noting water use for a casino would triple.

In another argument, the plaintiffs argue the risks associated with the location of the casino near large above-ground propane tanks - Suburban Propane on Grant Line Road - were not assessed.

The plaintiffs, represented by the law firm Perkin Coi are seeking oral arguments before McFadden and requests a summary judgment reversal of the January 19, 2017 decision to place the 36-acre parcel into federal trust.

Regardless of the resolution in U.S. District Court in Washinton DC, the losing party will appeal the decision. How long that process takes is uncertain, but it will continue to add uncertainty to the project. 

This extended litigation exposes another challenge for the casino - how will the Wilton Rancheria finance the project. Boyd Gaming, who bought the 36-acres for the Wilton Rancheria and will manage operations, has backed out of financing the project. 

Who will provide the $500 million needed for construction? If there was a new financier, chances are an announcement would have been made.

Aside from Hitchcock's statements earlier this year, there has been little public relations activity. Readers will recall two years ago when Gov. Jerry Brown approved the state gaming compact, a spokesperson for the Wilton Rancheria expressed confidence on a TV news report saying "we are looking, best case scenario, sometime next summer [2018] breaking ground."

Much like the promised opening dates for the now-demolished Outlet Collect at Elk Grove that kept getting pushed out, these best-case scenarios keep failing. Ground-breaking goals for the casino are under constant revision.

Perhaps the question Elk Grove residents should start pondering is what is the casino's worst-case scenario and is this another impending doomed project for the city?

Copyright by Elk Grove News © 2019. All right reserved.


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