Tribe vows to fight feds over casino land near Romulus

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians said Thursday it will keep fighting the U.S. Department of Interior after federal officials denied the tribe’s trust land application to build new casinos in Romulus and Lansing.

In the rejection letter, Department of Interior Associate Deputy Secretary James Carson told tribe Chairperson Aaron Payment that the tribe’s requested land acquisition would not enhance existing tribal lands because the lots in Lansing and near Romulus are a respective 287-mile and 365-mile drives from the tribe’s headquarters in Sault Ste. Marie.

“The Tribe … has provided no evidence to support its argument,” Carson wrote in the letter. “… I conclude that the Tribe has failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that its acquisition of the Parcels would effect an ‘enhancement’ of tribal lands as necessary to trigger the mandatory land-into-trust provision. Therefore, the applications are denied.”

The tribe has “no intention of giving up” their push for the new casinos because it believes the law is on its side, Payment said in a statement.

“We are deeply disappointed in the U.S. DOI’s decision to deny our mandatory trust land petitions for Lansing and Romulus, largely because it is based on a flawed legal analysis and because our Land Claims Settlement Act approved by the Congress of the United States in 1997 clearly requires that the applications be approved,” Payment said.

“Our Tribe is within federal law and our legal rights to pursue these opportunities to create thousands of new jobs and generate millions of dollars in new revenues that will enhance our tribal land base and benefit our members, the people of Lansing, public school students in Lansing, the people of Huron Township and the entire state,” he continued.

The tribe has been pushing for a new Lansing casino since 2012 after first proposing the idea to Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero. It then applied with the U.S. Department of Interior in 2014 for the downtown Lansing and southeast Michigan land near Romulus.

Two sites in Lansing would total about 2.7 acres near the Lansing Center, an events center downtown in the state’s Capitol. The tribe is also trying to get land in Huron Township totaling about 71 acres at 36181 Sibley Road and Interstate 275 southwest of the Detroit Metro Airport.

Critics have noted that a Toledo casino that opened in late May 2012 has siphoned some business away from Detroit’s three casinos, and a Romulus casino would further cut into revenues for the MGM Grand, MotorCity and Greektown gaming halls.

Tribe officials argue that at least three prior government actions “cleared the way for the Tribe to file the applications,” including a 2013 U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling and a 2014 decision from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to withdraw a lawsuit from the U.S. Supreme Court that the tribe says would have “effectively blocked the filing of the applications.”

Gov. Rick Snyder’s office declined to comment because the issue involves pending litigation.