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On April 3, the Big Lagoon Rancheria filed a complaint in United States District Court, Northern District, against the State of California. The suit tries to force the state to negotiate a gambling compact for a class III casino-hotel on the tribe's ancestral land on the edge of Big Lagoon.

Round gazillion. Or so it seems. As you may recall, two years ago Big Lagoon, in cooperation with another tribe, was just a hand or two away from becoming a casino magnate almost 800 miles south of here in dusty Barstow -- 2,250 class-III Vegas-style slots, big fancy hotels. But the state legislature failed to ratify Big Lagoon's compact for the project before it expired in 2007.

The tribe has been trying to enter the casino game for more than 15 years, 10 of which it spent in court trying to hash out a mutually agreeable tribal-state compact -- which is required under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act for class III casinos. (Class III slots are independent of each other and the player has the same chance of winning each time he plays.) They've gone back and forth on the level of restrictions the tribe would consider workable, and the size and nature of the operation that the state would find agreeable, with the state pushing for a much smaller operation than the tribe thought would be needed in order to be competitive with similar casinos in the region.

"Not building there [on the lagoon], that's the only thing that would please them in the end," said rancheria chair Virgil Moorehead last Friday by phone from the Hotel Arcata on the Plaza, which the tribe owns. "They've thrown up so many hurdles."

The complaint, filed pursuant to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, alleges that the state has acted in bad faith in its negotiations over the years with the tribe, while the tribe has, on the other hand, tried to answer many of the state's concerns -- including doing repeated environmental assessments and submitting the findings to the state.

By 2004, according to the complaint, the state had fixed on the idea of Big Lagoon going for an off-reservation casino -- a controversial move, with few precedents -- and in 2005, under Gov. Schwarzenegger's new administration, the tribe was directed to do just that.

After that project died on the vine, the state and tribe went back to the table; this time, says the complaint, the state was trying to convince the tribe to find another off-reservation site, but in Humboldt County. The tribe said enough with the bureaucratic hurdles already, and resumed its Big Lagoon casino plans.

By the time the tribe filed its latest lawsuit, in early April, the parties were at an impasse. The state said it would accept a casino with 99 gaming devices on the lagoon, and a hotel with 50 rooms on another parcel somewhere, plus some other restrictions which casinos three times the size of such a project didn't even have to comply with, says the complaint. The tribe wanted 350 class-III machines and a 100-room hotel, all at the lagoon.

In its answer to the tribe's complaint, the state says that the tribe has no right to insist on a compact for class III gaming because when the Big Lagoon land was taken into trust for the tribe, "the Rancheria misrepresented the use to which that land would be put and, thus, fraudulently induced the United States to accept the conveyance of that land in trust for Big Lagoon." That is, says the state, the tribe didn't say it would be wanting to build a casino there someday with Vegas-style slots.

The tribe is asking the court to find that the state acted in bad faith, and to compel the state to reach a compact with the tribe within 60 days. Failing that, said Moorehead, the complaint asks that the state and tribe separately submit their last, best offers to a court-appointed mediator, who will choose one of them.

There's a case management hearing June 25, said Moorehead, in Judge Claudia Wilken's court.

And if the state wins and the tribe's class-III plan gets nixed?

Then the tribe will still go ahead and build a hotel-casino on Big Lagoon. "We don't need a compact with the state for a class-II casino," Moorehead said. "We could right now do a class-II casino and hotel there. We already have all the federal approvals.

It would be an uneasy concession: Class II gaming is basically bingo.

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Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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