Cowlitz Reservation

RECENTLY POSTED signs posted on southbound and northbound Interstate 5 near La Center direct visitors to the new Cowlitz Indian Reservation. The federal government approved the Cowlitz Tribe’s 152-acre reservation west of La Center earlier this year but the tribe and the city have been thwarted in their efforts to enter into a $14 million sewer agreement.

LA CENTER – A Thurston County Superior Court judge has knocked another hole in La Center’s plan to expand its sewer lines onto nearby Cowlitz Indian Reservation land.

On Aug. 28, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Gary R. Tabor sided with the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board, saying La Center’s plan to extend its sewer lines past the city’s urban growth boundary violates Clark County’s planning policies.

“Clark County insists that its policy does not allow La Center to provide sewer service to the tribal reservation,” said attorney Sarah Mack, who represented the city of La Center at the Aug. 28 hearing. “The city’s argument was that the land is reservation land and is no longer subject to Clark County’s (planning policies).”

La Center Mayor Jim Irish and other city leaders had been confident that the tribal land’s new reservation status would have a positive impact on the city’s appeal. Last week, Irish said he was surprised by Judge Tabor’s ruling.

“The outcome was not in our favor,” Irish said. “We need to talk to our attorneys and see what happens now, what all this entails.”

At the heart of the matter is a $14 million sewer agreement between the city of La Center and the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, signed in December of 2011, to provide provide sewer services to the tribe’s reservation land and proposed casino-resort complex near La Center’s Interstate 5 junction, adjacent to the city’s western boundary.

Opponents of the planned Cowlitz casino, including Clark County and owners of La Center’s private card rooms, challenged the city’s sewer expansion plans in 2013, saying several aspects violated county policy. In May of 2015, the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board ruled that the city’s plan to expand sewer services outside its urban growth boundary – despite the fact that it was expanding to federally recognized reservation land, which is not subject to the county’s regulations – was, indeed, in violation of Clark County’s 20-Year Planning Policies.

At the Aug. 28 hearing, the Thurston County Superior Court judge agreed with the Growth Management Hearings Board’s May 2015 decision.

“Basically, the judge affirmed the Board’s decision that there is one policy that is inconsistent with Clark County’s comp plan,” Mack said. “The decision is appealable, but the city has not made any decision yet on whether it will appeal.”

For now, Mack says, the city must comply with the Growth Management Hearings Board’s May order and comply with the county’s planning policies by November 30, 2015.

The ruling is a setback for the city of La Center, which has been fighting for nearly four years to get its long-term sewer expansion plans approved, and could make the Cowlitz Indian Tribe look elsewhere for sewer service.

“It is an unfortunate circumstance,” said Cowlitz Chairman Bill Iyall. “We will have to analyze and see what options La Center has. Personally, I know the tribe is very interested in working with La Center … and we’re still hoping to have that relationship. We’re just not sure what their options are.”

La Center Mayor Jim Irish said he attended the hearing on Aug. 28 at the Thurston County Superior Court in Olympia, but that he wasn’t sure how the ruling would impact the city’s future with the Cowlitz tribe.

“We need to sit down and look at the actual ruling and see how this is going to impact us and impact the tribe,” Irish said.

Two weeks before the hearing, Mayor Irish had expressed concerns that the tribe, which is ramping up its construction schedule and hoping to open its Las Vegas-style casino resort in 2017, wouldn’t be able to wait for another appeal if the city lost in Superior Court.

Iyall said the tribe is, in fact, still looking into the possibility of building an on-site sewer system to provide service the reservation’s administration buildings and casino.

“That’s still an option,” Iyall said of the on-site sewer system. “But right now our main concern is being able to work with La Center and having a good relationship with the city and its citizens. Hopefully, down the road, we can also have a better relationship with the county. But maybe that won’t come until the casino is open.”

John Bockmier, who represents the interests of La Center’s private card rooms – all three of which have joined in the various suits against the tribe’s plan to build a casino on the land near La Center – said Judge Tabor’s ruling was obviously good news for the card rooms, and questioned why the tribe is ramping up construction on the reservation site when there is another lawsuit challenging the legality of the reservation status in federal appellate court.

“Folks are assuming that it’s over, but it’s not over,” Bockmier said. “There is a chance that the plaintiffs (the card rooms, county and others who reject the tribe’s claim to the La Center area property) could win at the federal level.”

If the plaintiffs’ appeal is successful, the status of the tribe’s reservation could be in question.

“To the best of my knowledge, there are not a lot of historic examples like this to look at,” Bockmier said. “But the plaintiffs could get a favorable decision … and then what happens? No one really knows right now.”

The federal appellate court is expected to hear opening briefs on Oct. 9 of this year and to hearing closing arguments on Jan. 5, 2016. Of course, Bockmier said, the case is “very controversial and complex” and subject to requests from both parties, so a decision on the federal level might not come down as soon as expected.

“It will be interesting to see how this all works out,” Bockmier said.

Iyall said he hopes to meet with La Center leaders within the week to discuss the ruling and nail down options for the city and the tribe.

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