Judge rules against Tohono O'odham's casino plans - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Judge rules against Tohono O'odham's casino plans

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Posted: Friday, March 12, 2010 7:09 pm | Updated: 3:23 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

A judge has taken about a third of the land owned by the Tohono O'odham Nation near Glendale out of the picture for building a casino.

A judge has taken about a third of the land owned by the Tohono O'odham Nation near Glendale out of the picture for building a casino.

In a 10-page ruling issued earlier this week, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Mangum said the city of Glendale legally annexed about 45 acres in the center of the tribe's holdings nearly a decade ago. Mangum rejected the tribe's argument that the city had abandoned its action.

The decision is significant because the tribe wants the land made part of its reservation, a precursor to allowing it to develop a casino on the site. But the federal law which authorized the Tohono O'odham to buy the land allows it to seek reservation inclusion only if it is in an unincorporated area.

In a prepared statement, Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said the tribe disagrees with the ruling and is reviewing its options.

But Norris also said that, if push comes to shove, the tribe believes it can still build its casino and resort on what's left of the property.

Craig Tindall, an attorney for the city of Glendale, said that may be true. But Tindall pointed out that city officials are pursuing other legal options to put the entire parcel off-limits to the casino, including pushing a bill at the Legislature to let the city annex the whole parcel without tribal approval.

In 2001 Glendale adopted an ordinance annexing land now owned by the tribe and additional property. That resulted in an objection by the company that owned the land at the time.

The following May, the council voted to repeal the original annexation ordinance. Then, in August 2003, the tribe, through a privately held company, bought 135 acres in the northern portion of the original annexation area.

What caused the legal fight was the tribe's announcement early last year it intended to build a $550 million casino, hotel and shopping complex on the site, a decision made without consulting Glendale officials. Glendale then took the position that it's 2002 annexation repeal was illegal and, therefore, the original 2001 annexation stood.

The tribe then sued.

State law says annexations are not final until 30 days after a city adopts the ordinance. But attorney Lisa Hauser argued that the objection filed by the landowner delays that from taking place until the court decides.

What that means, Hauser said, is Glendale was acting within its authority when it repealed the original annexation. And she pointed out the city did not treat the land as belonging to the city by providing police or fire services or by trying to impose the city property tax.

Mangum called the tribe's position "attractive because of its common sense analysis." But the judge said the law makes it clear that annexations are effective after the end of the 30-day period for a challenge.

"The statute's language is unambiguous and must be given effect," Mangum wrote.

"If this ruling stands, we have an alternative footprint for the facility," Norris said in his statement, one he said would accommodate the resort and casino on the rest of the property that the tribe ultimately hopes will be reservation land. No plans were immediately available.

But other hurdles remain.

A 1986 federal law gave the tribe $30 million and authorized it to buy private land in Pima, Pinal or Maricopa counties to replace nearly 10,000 acres of tribal property destroyed by construction of a dam. The tribe bought this site in March 2003 under the name Ranier Resources Inc. Its true ownership did not become known, however, until years later.

But actually getting the land declared part of the reservation requires separate approval by the U.S. Department of Interior. No decision has been made on that application.

While that has been pending, city officials convinced members of the House Government Committee to approve a measure allowing Glendale to annex the entire site without permission of the tribe. That legislation gained preliminary House approval last month but still needs a final roll-call vote before going to the Senate.

Gov. Jan Brewer, a Glendale resident, already is on record as opposing the casino on that site, as are the state's two U.S. senators.

Foes of the legislation contends it is unconstitutional.

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