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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Tribe looks to convert 155 acres near casino to trust land, a likely precursor for development

The front entrance of the Spokane Tribe Casino on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane Tribe of Indians hopes to convert 155 vacant acres next to its casino from fee land to trust land, a change that would make the property tax exempt and likely serve as a precursor to future development.

The property sits northwest of the Spokane Tribe Casino, a mile east of Fairchild Air Force Base and abuts the Airway Heights city limits.

Spokane Tribe of Indians Chairwoman Carol Evans declined to discuss future plans for the site, although the tribe’s application with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to place the land in trust is for nongaming purposes.

Placing land in trust with the U.S. government would come with several advantages.

Today, the property is fee land, owned outright by the tribe. Fee lands are regulated by Spokane County zoning laws and devoid of any special tax status.

With the land vacant, zoning restrictions aren’t much of an issue. Property taxes cost the tribe a few thousand dollars a year.

But taxes and zoning could become a hindrance if the Spokane tribe wanted to build on the 155 acres. Those hindrances would disappear if the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and secretary of the interior agreed to hold the property in trust. Trust lands aren’t subject to state or local laws. Tribes don’t have to pay sales taxes or property taxes on them either. 

Most tribal lands throughout the U.S., including the Spokane Tribe Casino property, are trust lands owned by the Department of the Interior.

Jim Emacio, a special deputy prosecuting attorney for Spokane County, told the county commission last week that he’s never seen the secretary of the interior turn down a tribe’s request to convert fee land to trust land.

“More than likely it will be approved, because there would be no reason not to approve it, with a casino approved just right next door and sharing a common property line,” Spokane County Commissioner Al French said.

Spokane County resisted the tribe’s attempt to build the casino, which opened in 2018, but French said he’s not opposed to the tribe expanding its operation.

“There’s no chance of ever stopping what they want to do,” he said. “The Bureau of Indian Affairs and secretary of the interior is motivated to do everything they can to provide financial stability to the tribes. I don’t have any issue with that at all, God bless them, that’s terrific.”

French said he has two potential concerns, however.

First, he said he wants to protect Fairchild Air Force Base from encroachment. The Air Force never objected to the tribe’s casino, but local, state and federal politicians argued the casino would threaten the base.

Second, he said he wants to ensure the county is compensated if the new development relies on county services, such as law enforcement.

“I don’t see that there is going to be any challenges with this other than coming to some kind of agreement for services,” French said.