Jamul tribe plans to build a 30-story hotel-casino - Friday 12th of August 2005

Evoking shock and outrage from neighboring residents, Jamul tribal leaders say they intend to build a 30-story hotel-casino on the only land they have: their six-acre reservation.

Leaders of the 53-member tribe said yesterday their years-long efforts to build a more traditional resort-casino have been stymied by county, state and federal officials.

What they are proposing instead is a towering gambling complex that would be like no other in California: a two-or three-story casino sandwiched between a 10-level garage and a 412-room hotel.

It would be the countys tallest building outside of downtown San Diego, surpassing the Rincon tribes 21-story Harrahs resort by about 100 feet.

"Were going to go ahead and build a casino on the six acres," Jamul tribal Chairman Lee Acebedo said. "It will be a challenge, but it can be done."

The tribe has only four acres open to construction. A tribal cemetery and Catholic chapel take up a third of the reservation. The structure would be about 150 feet from the chapel, Acebedo said.

County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, a Jamul resident, characterized the proposal as a disaster for the community.

"This is absolutely unbelievable. It is a sad, sad joke," she said. "A 30-story casino – thats outrageous."

The Jamul Indian Village has been trying since the mid-1990s to develop a casino in Jamul, about 20 miles from downtown San Diego. Their plans have been opposed by Jacob, a majority of her neighbors and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon.

The tribe has scheduled a news conference at 10 a.m. today at its headquarters on state Route 94 south of Melody Road.

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The plans were unveiled in a meeting yesterday with the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune. The board regularly hosts newsmakers to discuss current events and invites reporters and editors from the newsroom.

The tribes neighbors expressed anger and dismay over the proposal.

"Im just flabbergasted that theyd even think about doing something like that," said Richard Wright, a 35-year resident of Jamul. "It seems like theyre showing the same disregard for the community that they have all along with a project of that magnitude."

The community includes about 9,800 residents, many of whom live in estate-style homes on large lots. The objection voiced most is that a casino would bring increased traffic to Route 94, a two-lane highway that is the areas main artery.

Tribal leaders said they know the high-rise plan wont be popular. However, they said they have no choice after a membership vote last month.

"Ill never be able to satisfy the outside public, but I do have to pay attention to my own tribal members," Acebedo said.

Until now, the plan had been to build outward, not upward. The tribes corporate backer, Lakes Gaming of Minnesota, bought 101 acres of adjacent land, and the tribe has been trying for years to have the land placed into federal trust.

The aim was to build a casino with 2,000 slot machines on the original six acres and use the additional land for a 300-room hotel, parking, tribal housing and emergency services. More than half of the annexed parcel – 57 acres – was to be preserved as open space.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs approved an environmental impact report on the project – including the land transfer – in September 2003. However, since then it has been awaiting final action from the Interior Department, and tribal leaders conceded that they have hit a wall.

They say the department is asking for a development agreement with the county, which they say they cant get from Jacob and the other supervisors. "We have reached a point of impasse. Were at a standstill," Acebedo said.

He said the tribe remains open to negotiating with the county to avoid the high-rise option.

"Weve done everything right. Weve bent over backward," he said. "Weve made offers, and those offers are still on the table."

The tribe has another adversary in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has refused to discuss a revision of Jamuls 1999 compact with the state. Without a new compact, Jamul couldnt install more than 350 slot machines – the minimum guaranteed under previous agreements with former Gov. Gray Davis.

Licenses for additional slots had to come from a statewide pool that has been exhausted. Schwarzenegger has negotiated new compacts with several tribes that allow unlimited machines.

With Lakes Gaming of Minnesota already having spent $30 million, Acebedo and tribal gaming commissioner Bill Mesa said the plan now is to augment their 350 slots with 2,000 or more "Class 2 machines" – devices that look and play like slots but are based on bingo-style games in which gamblers compete against each other, not the house.

Under federal law, the state has no authority to limit or regulate Class 2 gambling on Indian reservations. Other tribes have installed the pseudo-slots, which are less profitable but can be added at will.

Jamuls casino tower also would have 40 card tables, five restaurants and a wastewater-treatment plant in the parking structures basement. Instead of having its own fire station, the tribe would have to contract for service with a department with high-rise ladder equipment, Acebedo said.

He said these and other issues would be discussed in an environmental report the tribe expects to complete within 90 days. He said construction could begin early next year, take 18 to 24 months and cost $250 million to $300 million.

The 15 tribal homes on the reservation would have to be relocated to the adjacent parcel, which is owned by the tribes partner but is still under county control.

In Sacramento, Schwarzeneggers office was blindsided by the tribes move and could not say what, if anything, it might do in response.

"We will certainly monitor the situation to ensure that they follow the terms of the compact the previous administration granted them," said Vince Sollitto, a spokesman for the governor.

He said administration attorneys would need more information before determining whether the high-rise could be built under the 1999 compact.

In September, Schwarzenegger sent the Bureau of Indian Affairs a letter opposing the tribes previous casino plan, saying its "risks to public safety and the potential negative impacts to the environment are too great to ignore."

Although tribal leaders said yesterday they had been repeatedly rebuffed in attempts to meet with Jacob, the supervisor denied those assertions. She said she has a Sept. 15 meeting scheduled with officials of Lakes Gaming of Minnesota.

The tribes neighbors vowed to continue the fight.

"Our community will not waver from its fight," said Marcia Spurgeon, a 30-year Jamul resident and member of the local school board. "Its inappropriate and its not the right thing to do."

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