Foes and fans of a Berkeley developer’s plans for a Las Vegas-style casino resort pleaded their cases before federal and Richmond officials last week.
Formally called a scoping session, the public forum served as a vehicle for gathering concerns to be addressed in a joint state and federal environmental document that will be used to decide if Point Molate should become a tribal reservation eligible for Indian gaming.
A final decision on the project is expected in about a year.
Thursday’s gathering yielded 27 speakers opposing the project, compared to 16 supporters.
Looking for economic salvation, the Richmond City Council agreed to sell the former naval refueling base to a consortium assembled by James D. Levine, a Berkeleyan who made his fortune at the helm of one of the nation’s leading private toxic cleanup firms.
Richmond bought the land for a dollar under federally mandated terms that require the city to use the property to generate jobs and new economic activity to replace the losses caused by the base closure.
The city eventually had two suitors for the site, Levine’s Upstream Development and ChevronTexaco, the petro-giant whose Richmond refinery is the community’s dominant economic force.
The oil firm entered late in the game, offering $80 million deal with delivery of $55 million within days of inking a deal, as opposed to Upstream, which was promising only $20 million up front backed by the promise of additional payments city officials said would be worth over $350 million, if. . .
If the 4-3 council majority was right in its belief that the Guidiville Rancheria of Lyttons—the tribe chosen by Levine—could win reservation status for the land and clear the federal and state gambling approval.
Thursday’s meeting, convened by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and the City of Richmond, marked the first step in the greenlighting process.
Before the transfer can begin, the project must pass through both the state and the federal environmental review processes, to see how the project looks through the lenses of the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Protection Act.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which has the ultimate say, will base its decision on the combined federal Environmental Impact Statement and state Environmental Impact Report. The BIA, in turn, hired Sacramento consultant William C. Allan to oversee the process.
Allan is playing the same role in another local casino evaluation, the Scotts Valley Pomos’ proposed Sugar Bowl casino in unincorporated North Richmond. He presided over a similar scoping session for that project last July.
“We’re here to find out what the environmental issues are and what reasonable alternatives the public may want us to review,” he said.
If the BIA bestows its blessings on the casino, the National Indian Gaming Commission must also approve the contract between the tribe and the company it chooses to manage gambling operations, said John Rydzik, chief of the Environmental Resource Management and Safety Division of the BIA’s Pacific Division.
The first five speakers represented the core of the environmentalist opposition to the casino project. Arthur Feinstein, conservation director for the Golden Gate Audubon Society, led off.
“It’s naive to think that the number of people this will attract will not impact the adjacent natural resources on the site,” he declared, referring not only to the shoreline environment but the offshore eel grass beds—the Bay Area’s largest. “This is growth-inducing and will encourage development all along the shoreline and the remaining wildlife will disappear from the North Bay.
Robert Cheasty, chair of Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP), challenged the legitimacy of the scoping session itself in light of two ongoing lawsuits which have challenged the legitimacy of the city’s sale of the property to the Levine consortium.
“It’s an abominable project,” Cheasty declared, bringing unwanted urban gambling. “It’s a bad use of the BIA. It’s simply a device by which Nevada gaming interests get around California law.” Cheasty also faulted the project for not including dedicated public park space and wildlife habitat protection.
“The Sierra Club opposes this project and will do everything it can to defeat it,” said Norman LaForce, the club’s statewide coordinator on gambling issues.
“If it goes into (BIA) trust, there will be an utter and complete loss of further control by local government on any new projects on the land,” he said, adding that the Sugar Bowl site is a much more appropriate casino location.
CESP member Sylvia McLaughlin, a Berkeley resident best known as a founder of Save The Bay, declared the site “totally inappropriate.”
Margaret Hanlon Grady of the Coalition to Save Point Molate raised the issue of the casino resort’s impact on the oft-congested Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, adding, “We don’t need this blight in our community.”
Unlike most speakers, she asked for specific issues to be addressed in the Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report, including full details on the ongoing toxic waste cleanup of the site—“We want our kids to be able to eat that dirt”—and asked for a listing of other potential casino sites explored by the tribe and the developers.
“I understand that the tribe and Upstream have been reservation shopping for quite some time,” said Thomas Grady. “I understand they looked at Antioch and Hercules. Why didn’t they look at wealthy communities like Danville and Blackhawk?”
Many opponents came from the ranks of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), including City Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin, who took her seat after the council had already voted to approve the Upstream accord.
“I am here because I have huge concerns,” McLaughlin said. “The public was not consulted on this sale, and it is flat-out wrong to continue. I am personally opposed to casinos because they don’t create any products and they create no wealth. They simply move money around.”
Other RPA opponents offered their testimony against the project, including Andres Soto, Soula Culver, Tarnel Abbott, Mary Oshima and Jerome Smith—who appeared briefly in a tiger mask and read a Native American poem before he launched into his critique.
Fairfax City Councilmember Frank Egger also spoke against the project, citing traffic pressure on the bridge generated by Marin County residents headed across the Bay to gamble. “Who is going to pay to widen the bridge? Who will reimburse Marin County for the roadway and service impacts?”
Egger also asked the environmental impact document authors to address the visual and environmental impacts, as well as the impact of shoreline lights at night.
Michael Ali, a Richmond resident and a Cherokee, led off the proponents, declaring, “There is no more time for fighting. Your people must learn to give up your arrogance. You have the gift of material power. Can you share it?”
“The Indians deserve the land at Point Molate to get out of poverty and uncertainty,” said Rita Oliver, who said she was speaking on behalf of six neighborhood councils representing 18,000 residents. “Urban gambling is not new to California, so why not give Richmond a piece of the pie?”
The one issue that did concern her was traffic. “I wonder if it will run all day and will the (bridge) be accessible to commuters?,” she asked.
While Richmond Planning Commissioner Zachary Harris offered no position on the project itself, he asked if the environmental impact documents would discuss traffic alternatives. “I also want to know the level of detail incorporated into any design documents.”
Jim Russey, president of the Richmond Firefighters Association Local 188, based his support for the project on public safety grounds: “Richmond is the number one most dangerous city in California and it won’t get any better by keeping it a shoreline park. The city needs the revenue.”
Richmond Parks and Recreation Commissioner Mel Davis praised the project as an antidote to Richmond’s economic depression and the source of jobs and recreation opportunities. Addressing critics who charged that the casino would prey on those least able to afford to gamble, Davis said, “I don’t think the developer will put this much money into a project that relies on poor people to support it.”
Mike Padilla praised the project, while expressing concerns about environmental impacts. “I believe it’s a good project, and I support the return of ferry service” which developers have promised when the project opens.
“Gambling is not new to the Bay Area,” he said. “In case you haven’t seen, there’s a very large race track right down the road.”
Lee Jones said he was offering support for the casino on the part of 3,500 North Richmond residents and 17 churches.
“A lot of my friends have been losing jobs, and the city is in dire straits,”” he said. “I’m looking for the casino to bring in new jobs and some revenue to fix our potholes and build new recreational facilities.”
“It’s nice to talk about alternative uses,” said supporter Susan McHarg, “but we don’t have people with money in hand talking about alternative uses. (The developers) have been very up front, and they have shown us their plans in detail.”
Marshall Walker III, a 55-year city resident, said he had solicited over 200 signatures from men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 who support the casino.
“They all said that if it’s going to bring jobs, let them bring jobs,” he said.
Others said they wanted to open businesses to supply the daily needs of the casino and hotel complex.
Ted Smith, an African American supporter of both the Point Molate and Sugar Bowl projects, ridiculed opponents, declaring that “most of them don’t even look like me.” Levine’s project, he said, “will be the greatest thing to happen to this community since World War II. It will put us on the map like World War II.”
Entwine Cloird, a lifetime resident of Richmond’s Iron Triangle neighborhood, said the project would offer an positive alternative to young people’s “coke dreams and pipe dreams. Upstream is giving us hope.”
With the end of the testimony, Richmond Principal Planner Lori Reese Brown said the draft EIR documents should be ready in late September, followed by a 60-day public comment period, with the final report due 90 days after the close of comments, sometime in March 2006.