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McMorris Rodgers asks more time on casino study

The federal government should delay its decision on a proposed tribal casino on the West Plains an extra 45 days to allow Spokane County to voice its objections, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said Thursday.

In a dw-ah letter to a high-ranking Interior Department official, McMorris Rodgers asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to extend the comment period for the Final Environmental Impact Statement on the Spokane Tribe’s proposed casino and retail development on land just outside Airway Heights. The congresswoman said Spokane County commissioners, who until recently were barred by a legal agreement from saying anything about the proposal, should be given an adequate opportunity to comment.

The current county commissioners oppose the project.

The bureau, in an impact statement released Feb. 1, said a plan to build a casino, hotel and shopping mall is the “preferred alternative” of four options it considered for the 145 acres purchased by the tribe away from its Eastern Washington reservation.

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. . .If built, the Spokane Tribe’s casino would become the second gambling facility on the West Plains, joining Northern Quest Casino, which is owned by the Kalispel Tribe.

Spokane County was, until recently, “legally unable to provide complete comments” on the proposed development, McMorris Rodgers she said: “I believe it would be imprudent for the Bureau to issue a Record of Decision without hearing from and thoughtfully evaluating information offered by Spokane County regarding the proposed project.”

Spokane County, the regional chamber of commerce Greater Spokane Inc., and some Spokane city officials have argued the development would result in dangerous “encroachment” on nearby Fairchild Air Force Base, creating a hazard for planes on regular training flights and making the base more susceptible to closure if Congress decides to shut down more military installations. The base and the Air Force cooperated with the bureau and the tribe in preparing the impact statement, which says certain problems can be mitigated and the project “is not considered an ‘encroachment’ that would make Fairchild AFB vulnerable to closure.”

There is no statement in the final impact statement from Fairchild, the Air Mobility Command to which it reports, or the Department of the Air Force raising concerns about encroachment or arguing against the bureau’s preferred alternative.

Other opponents raised the issue of possible problems between the base and the development while the impact statement was drafted and finalized. The County Commission as a body could not.

In 2010, county commissioners signed an agreement with the Spokane Tribe and Airway Heights not to oppose the development. But that was a 2-1 vote, and the commissioners who voted yes, Mark Richard and Bonnie Mager, are no longer on the board. Earlier this year, new members Al French and Shelly O’Quinn joined Todd Mielke in cancelling that agreement. They registered a formal objection to the project just two days before the final impact statement was released.

Mielke said Thursday the county board voted earlier this month to seek an extension. The extension is not unprecedented, McMorris Rodgers said in her letter to Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn; after the bureau released the draft impact statement, it extended the comment period on that document.

Greater Spokane Inc. supported the county’s request for an extension at a meeting with Washburn last week, GSI president Rich Hadley said. The Kalispel tribe also is asking the bureaus“to ensure a sufficient timeline to allow all relevant information be considered,” tribal spokeswoman April Pierre said.

Under federal law, the bureau accepts comments on the final impact statement for 30 days, but can extend that for another 45. After all comments are collected, the Interior Department issues a “Record of Decision” that will list the preferred alternative, but the final approval on the casino must be made by Gov. Jay Inslee.

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Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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