Fight over planned casino spreads to Legislature

By Jonathan J. Cooper
Glendale, Arizona (AP) March 2010

A plan by a southern Arizona tribe to build a casino and resort in the Phoenix area has divided tribes, split cities and is now sparking a debate at the Legislature about tribal sovereignty.

The Tohono O’odham Nation is seeking federal permission to add unincorporated land near Glendale to its reservation so it can put a Las Vegas style casino-resort on the site.

Glendale has vehemently opposed the tribe’s plans, saying they were developed without input from the city. The dispute has made it to a courtroom and the state Legislature, where lawmakers are considering a bill aimed at preventing the casino.

“This legislation is nothing more than a full-scale assault on the sovereign rights of all 21 of Arizona’s Indian tribes,” the Tohono O’odham nation said in a statement issued during February.

The House has given the measure preliminary approval, but it awaits formal passage before going to the Senate.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jerry Weiers, R-Glendale, says he doesn’t want a casino in his community.

“We’re simply saying if they want to build motels or hotels or swimming pools or bars or restaurants they can do that,” Weiers said. “They just would not be able to build a casino there.”

Weiers’ bill would allow Glendale to annex the land into its city limits, preventing the tribe from adding it to the reservation. Gambling in Arizona is allowed only on reservations.

“I think the T.O. Nation would have a very different understanding of exactly who’s front yard this is,” said Rep. Chad Campbell, a Phoenix Democrat who opposes Weiers’ bill.


Tribal officials have said they’ve tried to work with Glendale but the city has rejected efforts at honest dialogue. Tribal Chairman Ned Norris Jr. did not respond to repeated requests from The Associated Press for comment.

Opponents say Weiers’ bill, if passed, would likely land in court. The tribe and Glendale already are battling in court over the city’s assertion that it has annexed a portion of the land.

Glendale tried to annex the land in 2001 but abandoned that attempt amid opposition from a former landowner. Glendale now argues it had no legal authority to cancel the annexation.

The land is now an undeveloped, weedy tract. Tribe officials envision a $500 million, 600-room resort and casino that would bring jobs and tourists to the West Valley.

The 1.2 million square-foot facility would include a convention center, spa, restaurants and nightclubs.

The site is across the street from a high school and within walking distance of the new stadiums for the Arizona Cardinals football team and the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team, along with the entertainment venues that have cropped up around them.

Glendale City Attorney Craig Tindall said the land is inside the city’s municipal planning area, and the city had assumed it would eventually be annexed as part of a commercial retail development.

“No business, no homeowner, no school, had any choice on whether they wanted to locate near an Indian reservation with a gaming facility,” Tindall said.

The proposal has prompted more than a year of public squabbling between the tribe and various cities. The mayors of Buckeye, Goodyear, Litchfield Park, Surprise and Youngtown have joined Glendale in opposing the project, along with Gov. Jan Brewer and both of Arizona’s U.S. senators.

Supporters include the mayor of Peoria, which borders the project on one side, and the city council of nearby Tolleson. Mayor Adolfo Gamez of Tolleson said the project would create new jobs and would bring visitors to the West Valley, some of whom might spend money in his community.

The Gila River Indian Community, which operates the only existing casino in the West Valley, has opposed the Tohono O’odham casino, as have at least four other tribes.

In its statement, the Tohono O’odham Nation said “some tribes may not be happy about the additional competition that would result from the proposed project.”

Some of the opponents have said federal law and state gambling agreements do not allow casinos on new reservation land. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a 1988 federal law, allows tribal casinos only on existing reservation land, with certain narrow exceptions.

The Tohono O’odham Nation argues that one of those narrow exceptions applies in this case: A provision allowing casinos on land acquired as part of the settlement of a land claim.

A separate federal law authorizes the tribe to add nearly 10,000 acres of land to its reservation as compensation for land flooded after a dam was built close to the tribe’s San Lucy District near the town of Gila Bend.

The San Lucy District already was geographically separated from the rest of the reservation.

The Tohono O’odham application to have the land taken into trust as reservation land is now pending at the U.S. Department of the Interior. A spokeswoman said there’s no timeline for when a decision will be made.

On the Net:

Resort-Casino Project

City of Glendale

Tohono O’odham Nation