By Matt Youngfrau
MONTICELLO July 1, 2003 Could the casinos projects in Sullivan County be headed for trouble? Well, that depends on who is answering the questions. For varying reasons, all three proposed casino projects may soon confront their biggest obstacles and that may just be because agreements between officials are proving hard to come by.
On Friday, county officials met with members of Empire Resorts for their ongoing Monticello Raceway casino discussions. During these talks, Empire President Robert Berman informed County Attorney Ira Cohen and Legislature Chair Leni Binder that the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is tired of what is going on and is stepping in.
According to sources, the BIA will be conducting an environmental study, which could possibly set the Cayuga project back by as much as five years. Also, the BIA is reportedly bringing all three projects back to square one and will perform the environmental reviews themselves.
We dont know yet what happened, Binder commented. It is not clear. According to them [raceway officials], the federal government will do the environmental review. I dont regret what we did. We werent the ones negotiating in the press, and we would not negotiate in the press.
My actions were backed by the Legislature, Binder continued. This was not done alone. I hardly have that power. They should talk to [Town of Thompson Supervisor] Tony [Cellini]. He has more influence than I do.
Mr. Berman told us that the decision was made by the BIA that they [will] make the impact analysis, Cohen confirmed. We knew all along this is what they had to do. The Mohawks called me a few weeks ago, and they were doing their own NEPA review [the federal environmental review, similar to the NY State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA)] themselves. We do not believe the government would do the review themselves. We do not have this confirmed. Our Indian gaming attorney, John Jacobson, was not aware of this as of Friday and was looking for confirmation [as of yesterday].
According to Cohen, when he, Binder and County Manager Dan Briggs went to Washington, D.C. three months ago to meet with the BIA, they were told the BIA would be more careful with its approvals. Apparently, one approval of a land-to-trust application was overturned in court due to difficulties with the federal environmental review, and they did not want that to happen again.
This is exactly what we thought, said Cohen. For future land-in-trust applications, they want the federal environmental impact statement.
This has nothing to do with anything the county has done, he continued. The Justice Department has only looked at the application and is not privy to the support letters. This will take a few months, but in the long run, it will shorten the process and save time. This is not a bad thing. This was why we wanted an analyst. This is what the BIA wants. We want to move things along, not delay them.
Along those lines, the BIA called all three tribes and told them a NEPA review would be required. According to Cellini, the other tribes have said this is no big deal.
All the tribes have to do a federal DEIS [Draft Environmental Impact Study], Cellini commented. It will take Stockbridge three months to do it. The Mohawks said they will do it in three and a half months. I dont know why Berman is telling everyone it will take five years. It is no big deal.
Let them pony up the $15 million, and then well talk, Cellini continued sternly. If not, then stay out of our town. The lands we are giving away to a foreign country, the Indians, are theirs forever. Now they want to dictate to us? Go home. Well stick to our guns.
I admire what the Legislature and Ira have done, he concluded. We will not give the store away.
Empire Vice President Charles Degliomini released the following statement: Our project has received a rare approval from the federal government in the spring of 2000 (under the provisions for taking land into trust) and has complied with both state and federal law. We are hopeful that any change to those requirements will not impair our prior approvals.
While at this point nothing is in writing (a BIA letter has been promised in the days ahead), many seem to be drawing a line in the sand.
If this is true, I think the county should be taken to task for beleaguering all of the deals without doing proper studies and only hoping that because the village had verified impacts and done all their homework before signing the deal, perhaps they can salvage at least the casino at the racetrack, Monticello Mayor Gary Sommers stated. In reference to what study was done, the 1995 impact showed only this casino had all the evidence and shows that the deal the village entered into was appropriate. Also, I will be asking for a meeting with United States Senator Chuck Schumer to see if it would be possible to request a meeting with the BIA to clarify the villages agreement.
Neither Schumer nor his office returned phone calls.
The BIA wants to go by the book, Cohen said. The track and the county have had successful, meaningful conversations. Them panicking everyone and having the mayor and others call everyone when they do not know what they are talking about is pointless. The process does not move so quickly. It may take longer now. We will do the best we can to continue to work together.
In the meantime, the three casino proposals continue to struggle for momentum.
The Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe, along with Trading Cove Associates, has proposed an Indian-run casino off Route 17s Exit 107, Bridgeville Road. The tribe has an agreement with the county for $15 million per year, once it is operational, to mitigate impacts. However, New York State Governor George Pataki considers them an out-of-state tribe and will not negotiate with them.
Another project is for a St. Regis Mohawk/Park Place Entertainment casino at Kutshers Sports Academy. They too have a $15 million mitigation agreement with the county. However, the tribe recently elected new leadership. That leadership has problems with the Memo Of Understanding (MOU) the former leaders agreed to with Pataki for their land claim and a casino compact. Also, the new leaders feel $15 million is too much to pay and want to pay $5 million.
The third project is for the Cayuga casino, with Empire Resorts, at Monticello Raceway. Empire has a $5 million mitigation agreement with the Village of Monticello. They do not have an agreement with the county.
While negotiations continue between Empire and the county, the County Legislature sent a letter to the BIA opposing the project. Also, they have asked all the schools in the county to send similar letters of protest, citing the projects estimated impacts on services like education.
Meanwhile, negotiations continue until July 14, when the county may file a lawsuit challenging the SEQR review done by the Village Planning Board five years ago.