Lawsuit Challenges Richmond Casino

By Richard Brenneman
Friday May 25, 2007

A last-minute lawsuit filed this week alleges the Richmond City Council violated state environmental law by signing a $310.4 million contract to provide services for a North Richmond casino. 

The action followed by five weeks a critical state appellate ruling voiding a municipal services agreement in Amador County. 

In that lawsuit, the court held that by approving a service agreement for a project extensively detailed in the agreement, the Plymouth City Council had acted in breach of its obligation to first conduct a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review. 

The court held that the council’s approval of the agreement constituted an approval of the project itself, the same claim made in the Richmond suit. 

In the case of the Sugar Bowl Casino in unincorporated North Richmond, Chair Donald Arnold of the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo tribespeople and then-Richmond Mayor Irma Anderson signed the contract Dec. 27. 

The lawsuit filed Monday seeks a writ ordering the city and councilmembers to void the agreement, a judicial ruling declaring the agreement unlawful, and a restraining order and eventual permanent injunction barring further attempts to have the federal government declare the land a reservation or implement the contract pending completion of a review of the proposal under CEQA. 

Challenging the agreement is a coalition consisting of the Parchester Village Neighborhood Council, environmentalist Whitney Dotson, who also serves as president of the neighborhood council, Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP) and the recently formed SPRAWLDEF (the Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund). 

Representing the plaintiffs is Stephan Volker, an Oakland attorney who specializes in cases involving alleged CEQA violations. He said he recommended the action to his clients after the appellate ruling in the Amador County case. 

Named as defendants are the City of Richmond and the Richmond City Council, with the Scotts Valley Band named as a “real party in interest.” 

The lawsuit charges that the city violated CEQA by approving the municipal services agreement without first conducting an environmental review as required by the statute. 

“That’s very interesting,” said Doug Arnold, chair of the Pomo tribal group that has proposed to build the casino with the backing of Noram Richmond LLC, a special-purpose corporation formed by Maitland, Fla., developer Alan H. Ginsburg—a major player in the tribal casino industry. 

Speaking from San Diego, Arnold said he had rumors of “something like this. But I haven’t seen it, and nobody I know has seen it.” 

Arnold said he would have to discuss the action with the tribe’s legal representatives before he could comment further. 

“We’re very confident,” said Volker, citing the April decision by the state Court of Appeals Third District, which struck down a similar agreement on the same grounds cited in Volker’s suit. “The case is right on point,” he said. 

Because the tribe is a federally recognized Native American nation, it can claim immunity from the lawsuit, something Arnold said would be a distinct possibility. 

While Volker’s petition, filed with the Contra Costa County Superior Court, cited the tribe’s ability to declare itself immune, the plaintiffs contend that shouldn’t bar action on the litigation because “the city’s interest duplicates that of the Band, and the Band’s interest will thus be adequately defended by the city.” 

The $200 million-plus, 225,000-square-foot primary structure planned by the tribe would be built on a 29.9 acre parcel in unincorporated North Richmond along the eastern side of Richmond Parkway north of Parr Boulevard. 

The building would include a 79,320-square-foot casino, 24,000-square-foot showroom, a 250-seat venue for lounge acts, a 150-seat sports bar, a 600-seat buffet, plus a 120-seat restaurant and a food court. 

The complex would also feature 3,549 parking spaces, most in a separate five-level, 160,000-square-foot structure. 

The tribe’s plans to develop the gambling spa can’t move forward in any case until the federal Department of the Interior agrees to take the land into trust for the tribe and federal and state officials agree to an application to use the site for gambling. 

Assemblymember Loni Hancock, the Berkeley Democrat who represents the area, said last week that the casino application stands little chance of winning approval. 

The lawsuit charges that “the Band has no ancestral ties to the proposed Casino site,” an assertion Hancock also cited. 

Because the site is in an unincorporated area of Contra Costa County with few emergency services available, the tribe started negotiating with the city in November, 2005 for a service agreement, only to be rebuffed because the city then had an exclusive agreement with the Guidiville Rancheria Pomos who are planning a casino inside city limits at Point Molate. 

The Guidivilles subsequently agreed to a modification, which was approved in March, 2006. Following negotiations with the Scotts Valley Band, a proposed services agreement for the Sugar Bowl was presented to the city council Nov., 14, 2006 and approved a week later. 

The document was signed by Arnold and then-Mayor Irma Anderson last Dec. 27. 

Gayle McLaughlin, who defeated Anderson to become the city’s new mayor two weeks later, had opposed both casino projects as a city councilmember. 

The agreement provides police, fire and other emergency services, as well as provides funding for either a new fire station within 1.5 miles of the casino or renovation of an existing station, and mandates that the tribe pay a proportionate share or fund outright a series of projects, including: 

• A new northbound lane on Richmond Parkway; 

• New lanes on Parr Boulevard; 

• A new interchange where the roads intersect; 

• Shuttle service from the casino to a proposed Richmond Parkway Transit Center and the Richmond BART station, and 

• A new bike lane along Goodrick Avenue between Parr and the Parkway. 

Payments would be dispersed through the length of the 20-year agreement, adjusted to rise and fall with the Consumer Price Index, and totaling $310 million adjusted to keep pace with the value of the dollar at the time the agreement was signed. 

Richmond City Attorney John Eastman did not return calls seeking comment on the litigation.