Federal officials gave the go-ahead Friday for the Tohono O’odham to annex at least part of a parcel of land near Glendale into the reservation, putting the tribe one step closer to being able to operate a casino there.
Larry Hawk, assistant secretary of Indian affairs for the U.S. Department of Interior, said the legal requirements for taking 53.5 acres of the property “in trust’’ have been satisfied.
Still unresolved is whether the tribe will get to put the balance of the nearly 135 acres of land it purchased years ago near the Arizona Cardinals stadium into the reservation.
Questions about the ability to annex that land have been clouded by a court ruling that the property is within the city of Glendale. That ruling, unless overturned, makes the rest of the parcel legally ineligible to become part of the reservation.
But Tohono officials have insisted that they can redesign the plans for the $550 million complex that would include not just a casino but also a 600-room resort and shopping center so that the casino itself is on reservation land as legally required.
The legal fight over gaming on the site, however, is far from over.
Hawk, in his letter to Tohono Chairman Ned Norris Jr., pointed out that reservation status, by itself, does not come with a guarantee of a right to operate a casino.
He pointed out that the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act has special requirements for allowing casinos on lands that were not part of any reservation before Oct. 18, 1988. Hawk said the Tohono must now prove they qualify for one of the exceptions.
David Leibowitz, a spokesman for the Gila River Indian Community, which has fought the Tohono casino at every step, said his client believes it will be difficult, if not impossible, for gambling to be approved.
He said that federal law has only a handful of exceptions. One would be for the Tohono O’odham to get permission from Gov. Jan Brewer, a Glendale resident.
“The governor has been a consistent opponent of this casino,’’ Leibowitz pointed out. “So it would be difficult to fathom that she would change her mind.’’
There is another exception that might work: The federal law allows casinos on land that was acquired by tribes as part of “the settlement of a land claim.’’ Whether this land qualifies, however, is unclear.
Congress voted in 1986 to give the tribe $30 million and let it buy private land in Pima, Pinal and Maricopa counties to compensate for the loss of 10,000 acres in the San Lucy District, near Gila Bend, flooded by a new dam. That law said the property could become part of the reservation, but only if it were not within the limits of any city.
The tribe, using the name Rainier Resources Inc., bought the parcel on the western edge of Glendale in 2003, close to the then-planned stadium for the Arizona Cardinals. The true buyer was finally disclosed early last year when the tribe sought permission to have the land made part of the reservation.
Gila River spokeswoman Alia Maisonet said Friday the tribe is “exploring all of the different options’’ to keep a casino from ever opening on the site, including litigation.
Norris, in a prepared statement Friday, acknowledged some legal hurdles remain, saying the Interior Department decision “puts us a step closer to the realization of an economic development project that is vital to the well-being of the Nation and that will make thousands of desperately needed jobs available to our neighbors.’’
Officials from each tribe have accused their counterparts of greed.
What is clear is that a casino in the West Valley will have a financial impact. Right now the Gila River casinos are the closest to the communities there, with the tribe even running bus service from Sun City to its casinos.
Brewer publicly urged Norris earlier this year to scrap plans for the casino.
She said her opposition was based on the intent of a 2002 voter-approved initiative which expanded the types of gambling that tribes could conduct, along with an increase in the number of slot machines they could operate. It also gave tribes the exclusive right to conduct casino-style gambling in Arizona.
“It assured voters if they supported the balance contained within it that all casino-style gambling would be limited to existing tribal communities and would not become a part of off-reservation neighborhoods,’’ Brewer wrote to Norris. “I do not believe the voters ever anticipated that gaming in this state would be anywhere other than on the tribal lands that existed at the time of Proposition 202.’’
Norris responded that this was a unique situation because of the permission the tribe got in the federal law granting it permission to acquire the property in exchange for the flooded lands.