February 7, 2013 | Vol. 116 -- No. 42

Bureau of Indian Affairs releases final STEP study

Document indicates that the project is compatible with local land uses

The Bureau of Indian Affairs released its final Environmental Impact Study for the proposed Spokane Tribe Economic Project (STEP), offering ways to mitigate potential impacts from three development options of the project.

Released Thursday, Jan. 31, the document comes as the first news of the project in almost a year. The BIA held a public hearing at Sunset Elementary in March last year to hear public input on STEP. There, for several hours, local representatives, Spokane Tribe members and interested residents offered their opinion on the project.

With the release of the final EIS, a 30-day comment period begins. Comments must be received by March 4, 2013. From there, the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs will prepare a final decision on behalf of the Secretary of the Interior. That decision will be forwarded on to Gov. Jay Inslee, where another decision will be rendered.

The large build out of STEP would create a casino and 300-room hotel resort area on 145 acres of land west of Craig Road, north of Highway 2. Airway Heights annexed the land last year, which is currently home to the tribe’s SpokoFuel and Arby’s operations. The tribe estimates around 5,000 jobs would be created, many which come from big box retailers and other commercial elements on the location. A tribal culture center as well as a police and fire station are also included in the full build out, called Alternative 1 in the EIS.

Alternatives listed in the EIS included a reduced casino without the hotel, and another without the casino. That proposal, Alternative 3, incorporates a 979,000 sq. ft. non-gaming mixed-use development incorporating a children’s arcade, bowling alley and convention/banquet center, among other items.

One of the largest concerns regarding the project has been its potential impact on operations at Fairchild Air Force Base. In the last several months, Spokane County, the city of Spokane and Airway Heights all passed versions of the Joint Land Use Study, which sets up land use guidelines for property surrounding the base and, at a lower impact level, across the entire county.

In the document’s executive summary, the BIA noted that since the tribe has rights as a sovereign nation, it doesn’t necessarily have to follow local and state land use policies. Airway Heights passed its version of JLUS in December 2012, after comments had been received for the draft EIS. Plans, however, have been notable throughout JLUS’ development.

“Although state and local land use plans do not apply to tribal lands, Alternative 1 [the full casino and resort build out] would be compatible with local zoning and land use policies as well as policies related to land use in the vicinity of the Fairchild Air Force Base and Spokane International Airport,” the report reads.

Among the general responses includes an address to the public asking whether the location was the question. Furthermore, the tribe doesn’t have any other land held in federal trust.

“Because all potential conflicts with AFB operations can be reduced to less than significant in accordance with regional planning documents and Department of Defense (DOD) recommendations, consideration of an off-site alternative to avoid land use conflicts is not warranted,” the document reads.

One group, Citizens Against Casino Expansion noted their disapproval of the document’s stance, arguing it doesn’t factor in recent political developments. Last month, Spokane County Commissioners were released from an interlocal agreement that required the board as a whole to remain neutral on the issue, in exchange for some gaming profits from the project.

“The community has given the BIA reams of data and input which they have chosen to ignore. They are trying to push this casino development down our throats,” Irv Zakheim, founder of the group, said in a news release. “They are also ignoring the fact that the governments representing the majority of citizens – the city of Spokane, Spokane County and the cty of Cheney – are all on record opposing this development.”

Several legislators at both the state and local level have expressed their opposition to the project, including 5th District Rep.Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Cheney Mayor Tom Trulove, former 3rd District state Sen. Lisa Brown and 6th District state Sen. Michael Baumgartner.

While the EIS says the project is compatible with surrounding land-uses, it does include comments from the Air Force relating to flight patterns in the area.

“The project site is located adjacent to and directly below established flight patterns for Fairchild AFB. The U.S. Air Force has indicated that future restrictions to flight patterns to avoid noise related land use conflicts would not be possible without impacting the operational and training mission of Fairchild AFB,” the report reads.

James Eik can be reached at james@cheneyfreepress.com.

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