Judge dismisses lawsuit against Indian casino - Saturday 12th of March 2005

A proposed Indian casino in southwest Michigan is a step closer to reality after a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by an anti-casino group seeking to block its construction.


On Thursday, U.S. District Judge James Robertson dismissed the last remaining issue in the suit -- whether the Bureau of Indian Affairs adequately evaluated the environmental impact of developing the Berrien County casino.


Barring another appeal, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians said the ruling clears the way for it to build the 144,000-square-foot Four Winds Casino Resort near New Buffalo.


"The Pokagons are one step closer to self sufficiency -- one step closer to providing housing, health care and educational opportunities for our tribal members," Pokagon Tribal Chairman John Miller said in a statement.


In his ruling, Robertson noted that the bureau's environmental assessment found the area's zoning restrictions would control growth-induced impact, there would be no significant impact on air quality and local authorities would expand services for the area's water and sewage systems.


"BIA has not ignored any areas of concern, it has taken a hard look at problems raised and its assessments are not arbitrary or capricious," Robertson wrote. "The law requires no more."


Robert Jonker, a Grand Rapids attorney representing Taxpayers of Michigan Against Casinos (TOMAC), said they were disappointed by the ruling and evaluating their next move. He suggested an appeal was likely.


"I expect that our clients will want to continue with their efforts," Jonker said. "They've believed in their position from the beginning."


Tribal officials said the ruling would allow the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take a 675-acre parcel in New Buffalo Township into trust for the tribe. With that move, the tribe could begin the 18-month construction process.


"It's been four years and every nook and cranny has been looked at so we are confident the BIA will now look forward, take the land into trust, which will allow the Pokagons to begin building their casino development," said tribal spokesman Tom Shields.


The taxpayers' group sued the U.S. Department of the Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2001.


Most of the suit was thrown out in March 2002, but Robertson left alive the group's claim that environmental economic impact studies were inadequate.


Michigan has 17 tribal casinos and calls for expansion have been wrapped up in litigation for much of the decade.


Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider the anti-casino group's challenge to some Michigan tribal compacts in a move that allowed two casinos to remain open and help tribes open two more.


Then-Gov. John Engler negotiated and signed the compacts with the Pokagons, Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians in Mackinaw City and Petoskey, Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians in Battle Creek and Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee.


The state Legislature approved the compacts by a resolution during a late-night session in 1998. A resolution needs approval from the majority of lawmakers present.

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