Page One

Hancock, County Officials Blast North Richmond Casino Plans

By Richard Brenneman
Friday April 04, 2008

A state legislator and county officials took sharp issue with the environmental documents prepared in support of a Lake County tribe’s bid to build a casino on industrial land in North Richmond. 

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has just released the final environmental impact statement on the Sugar Bowl Casino, planned to be built along a stretch of Richmond Parkway in the heart of one of the Bay Area’s most troubled communities. 

The Scotts Valley band of Pomos has filed for permission to take the site into trust as a reservation, the first critical step to winning approval to build a casino on the 30-acre parcel north of the intersection of Richmond Parkway and Parr Boulevard. 

The official responses released as part of the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) on the project done two years ago and released last week in the final EIS, prepared by a private consultant hired by the tribe. 

The Sugar Bowl is one of two off-reservation casino proposals being floated for the Richmond area, with the second, at Point Molate, considered less likely after the withdrawal of Harrah’s, the major corporate sponsor. 

James D. Levine, the creator of the Point Molate project, is a donor to state legislator Loni Hancock’s campaign fund. 

Both projects involve tribes who lost their ancestral lands after the BIA launched a subsequently abandoned policy of “mainstreaming” tribal people in urban society through forced off-reservation schooling and loss of their reservations. Only such tribes are currently allowed to build off-reservation gambling spas. 

“[T]he DEIS does not take into account the basic concerns of the local community and fails to give a clear, complete and objective analysis of the proposal,” wrote Loni Hancock, who represents the area in the California Assembly. “I concur with the county’s concerns and support their opposition to the land acquisition.” 

Hancock said the draft statement “is simply incorrect” in claiming there is no connection between crime and gambling, ignoring new studies that “have shown strong correlations exist.” 

Of special concern, Hancock wrote, was the fact that Richmond ranked as the state’s most violent city, and the 12th most violent nationally, making the community “an already high-risk urban area.” 

The legislator cited national studies showing that compulsive gambling rates double when a casino arrives in a community, creating a population with documented “higher rates of domestic abuse, divorce and suicide.” 

Proposed mitigation measures, she said, “are woefully inadequate.” 

Hancock also questioned the study’s claim that the casino would create 2,108 new full-time jobs, and she raised health concerns related to the smoking that would occur on-site. Tribal reservations are exempt from state anti-smoking laws, though some tribes in other states have agreed to ban smoking in their casinos. 

Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, who represents the county’s western district, provided a compendium of comments from county agencies, beginning with the comments that the environmental statement’s format is “dense, and the document is difficult for a reader to decipher.” 


Document glitches 

The final document came to the Planet in the form of a computer disk on which the document comprised a collection of computer files and folders in which key illustrations and figures were separated from the documents that they were meant to augment. 

BIA Environmental Protection Specialist Patrick O’Mallan said he was told that the consultants who prepared the document said that was the only way the files could be organized because of their size. 

This reporter has seen dozens of environmental documents, but has never seen one in which key parts weren’t assembled and which required extensive work by the recipient to make the document intelligible. The BIA offered to send a printed draft, which hadn’t arrived by deadline. 

The document itself was designed to be accessed only through a web browser, Firefox, installed on a minority of computers. 


County concerns 

County officials also charged that the EIS used a faulty study to estimate revenues that would be generated by the two casino proposals considered in the document, one a scaled-down version of the preferred alternative. 

The county letter charged that the report “substantially” overestimates casino profit margins, given the history of other casinos, and fails to consider interest costs as an expense against revenues. The county also charged that the report fails to provide an adequate basis for estimating revenues that will flow to the tribe. 

Annual payment to members of the Scotts Valley Pomos would be substantial in either case, with estimates ranging from $79,543 to $200,943. Additional revenues would flow to tribal operations and a tribal economic development fund, bringing the per-member revenues estimate range to between $389,762 and $984,620. 

Though the Scotts Valley Pomos lost their Lake County reservation, county officials say the initial environmental statement failed to document how many members had relocated to Contra Costa County and the broader Bay Area. The county also charges that the tribe was never located in the East Bay and thus has no traditional claim on the area. 

The county also charges that none of the plans fit within the uses prescribed by either the county’s general plan, the North Richmond Shoreline Specific Plan or the North Richmond Planned Unit Zoning Program, and the plans violate regulations governing site coverage, floor area and numbers of employees per acre. 

Conversely, county officials contend, the environmental document wrongly rejects development in the tribe’s traditional home in Lake County. 

Other concerns included seismic dangers, water quality and runoff, wastewater handling, housing and air quality. 

County officials also said the tribe’s environmental consultant had overestimated both total employment and salaries resulting from the casino, while failing to give adequate treatment to county-level em-ployment considerations as well as jobs for tribe members. 

Another concern of the county is loss of property taxes, which would run nearly $2 million for an equivalent structure built on non-exempt land. But since reservations are sovereign land, they are not legally part of the county and are thus exempt from property taxes. 

The county letter agreed with Hancock’s contention that impacts from pathological gambling had not been given adequate consideration, especially in light of national studies documenting the disproportional impacts of gambling on the young, the less-educated and the poor, populations found in large numbers in the West County area. The same studies also found higher rates of problem gambling among African Americans, who comprise a significant percentage of the surrounding community. 

The county charged that the study made “no attempt to quantify the problem of pathological gambling” stemming from the project, and called for a review of casino impacts on social problems, including mental health, alcoholism and other drug abuse, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, elder abuse, truancy, divorce, crime, health problems and smoking. 

County officials said the report also failed to address or failed to give thorough consideration to transportation issues that the county had specifically requested the study to address, including impacts on railroad crossings, possible truck and traffic diversion, pedestrian and bicycle safety and a wide range of other traffic-related issues, including impacts of casino-related travel on a number of intersections and freeways. 

County officials rejected most of the report’s section on law enforcement problems, noting that the three casinos used for comparison were all located in rural areas, and not, like the Sugar Bowl, in the heart of a densely populated urban setting. 

The county also charged that the report failed to give adequate consideration to possible impacts on fire protection and emergency medical services. 

The county charged the report failed to a acknowledge an “irreversible significant change in community character” that would result, failed to address the full range of minority populations in the area and misused standard guidelines for estimating minority poverty levels. 

By contrast, the final EIS contends “there is no link between casino-style gambling and crime” beyond the increase otherwise expected by bringing more people into the area, and it also claim there is no correlation between the introduction of casinos and bankruptcies. Only 105 new cases of people seeking treatment for gambling problems are likely, the document contends. 

Despite the rather scathing critiques from local government, the environmental statement drew plaudits from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which commended the BIA and the tribe for a “well-prepared document, including a thorough cumulative impacts section.” 

Duane James, manager of the Communities and Ecosystems Division of the EPA’s Environmental Review Office, wrote that his only concern was the document’s failure to address contaminants that might already be located in the soil of the project site and how these would be handled if any were found.