Coquille project in limbo because of law signed by G.Washington 5-20-07

NORTH BEND, Ore. (AP) - A plan to put a Home Depot and other businesses on Coquille Tribal property is in limbo because of a law signed by President George Washington in 1790.

The Indian Nonintercourse Act shields tribes from being cheated out of their land by speculators.

But it also prevents tribes from selling or leasing land except through a treaty with the federal government as a party to the deal.

It is considered the last major hurdle to the Coquille Economic Development Corp.'s Ko Kwel Wharf project, a 50-acre retail and entertainment project north of The Mill Casino-Hotel.

Home Depot, which is paying for much of the infrastructure for the shopping center, worries the lease might not be legal.

“When it's our $20 million going into a project, we want to make sure that there is no question about the validity of the lease that has been signed,” said Brian Cannard, the real estate manager for Home Depot's Northwest Division.

But representatives from Home Depot and the business arm of the Coquille Indian Tribe say there is hope that Senate Bill 1286 introduced by Oregon's Republican Sen. Gordon Smith this month, will exempt the tribe in current and future projects.

If passed, it would apply only to land purchsed by the tribe that is not reservation land.

Brady Scott of the business wing of the tribe said the law came to his attention during negotiations with Home Depot.

He said Smith's bill must pass before Home Depot will sign a lease and begin building.

He said the tribe would be willing to go ahead now if Home Depot had no issues with the law. He said plans are not on hold and that work on permits and designs continues.

“I don't think this is going to kill the project,” Scott said, but added it could delay things pending passage of Smith's bill.

“It's not just a tribal issue, it's a community issue. We all want to see this waterfront revitalized,” Scott said.

Cannard said he is confident the bill will pass.

“We are just waiting. This particular issue, at this point, isn't one that the whole project is going to hinge on,” he said.

Smith's spokeswoman, Lindsay Jackson, said the proposal has wide support and has been sent to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. She said the senator took up the cause at the request of the Coquille Tribe.

Susan Jane Brown, the natural resources counsel for Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said the tribe isn't the first to ask for and win an exception to the law.

“(It's) nearly identical to similar legislation for other tribes that has been done for similar reasons,” Brown said, adding that while the tribe and Home Depot could probably ignore the old law, it is better to gain an exemption.

“The tribe certainly has a legitimate concern and this is one way to address it,” she said.