Governor Jan Brewer Signs Law That Allows Forcible Annexation of Land, Leaves Property Owner Without Any Say

The latest rendering of the West Valley Resort, a casino that Glendale officials and state leaders are trying to derail.
The latest rendering of the West Valley Resort, a casino that Glendale officials and state leaders are trying to derail.

Governor Jan Brewer signed into law a measure that allows local governments to annex property without a property owner's consent under certain circumstances.

It is the latest attempt by desperate Glendale politicians to block the Tohono O'odham Nation from building a resort-style casino in the West Valley near the Phoenix Coyotes' hockey arena and the Arizona Cardinals' football stadium.

Nation leaders call the new law unconstitutional because it is special legislation -- a law tailored to allow Glendale to annex the Indian community's parcel of land near 91st and Northern avenues.

Glendale City Attorney Craig Tindall was unavailable for comment this morning.

If Glendale is able to annex the Tohono O'odham Nation's land, city officials hope it will prevent the feds from taking that land into trust. When land is taken into trust for an Indian community, it becomes part of its reservation -- and casinos can only be built on reservations. However, if a piece of land already is part of a municipality, it can't be taken into trust. Thus, no reservation, no casino.

Nation leaders have been unwavering in their plans to build the West Valley Resort, a casino they estimate will create more than 9,000 jobs, lure 1.2 million people to the West Valley, and have a $300 million economic impact on the local economy each year.

This recently signed law, supported entirely by Republican lawmakers, turned the usual annexation process on its head. And also was a shocking deviation from the party's usual support of individual property rights.

Instead of a city's collecting signatures to make sure a majority of landowners want to become part it and be subject to its taxes and hosting a public hearing, the new law calls for the city to now just get the approval of a majority of its elected officials for an annexation to take place after a waiting period. And the law says the measure can be designated an emergency clause -- with two thirds of council members agreeing to it -- that can be enforced immediately.

With the new law, there are some restrictions.

Landowners can become the target of forcible annexation if they have requested that the federal government take their land into trust, if their land is bordered on three sides by the city and if the city that wants control of the property has a population of more than 350,000 people.

Not surprisingly, these exact circumstances apply to Glendale and the Tohono O'odham's land.

A press release issued by the Tohono O'odham Nation notes that "multiple lawmakers acknowledged that the bill was strictly geared toward the Nation's West Valley land, making it special legislation that is illegal. In fact, several Republican legislators turned on leadership after hearing the facts of the bill and its intended meaning; the Senate passed the bill by the minimum number of votes needed."

This is the second attempt by state lawmakers to derail the Nation's proposed casino, with the Glendale and the Gila River Indian Community on the front lines of the opposition.

And this is interesting:

During last year's attempt to change the annexation law, the bill being floated required a three-fourths vote of a City Council to pass the annexation with an emergency clause, making the law take immediate effect. In Glendale, that meant six of the seven council members would have to approve the annexation. And, last year, Glendale had the necessary council votes, but the state law wound up failing. (*See A.R.S. 19-142.B)

This year, the law adopted by Arizona lawmakers only requires two-thirds of the City Council, which means that Glendale now only needs five City Council members to approve the annexation with an emergency clause.

And not so coincidentally, in the most recent city election, a new council member won who has publicly supported the casino project and the thousands of jobs it will create for the region. That shift leaves Glendale with, you guessed it, five elected officials who would almost certainly vote in favor of emergency annexation.

Critics of the casino have argued that the Nation's proposed project is too close to neighborhoods and schools and that it will increase crime, but the law Brewer signed yesterday clearly illustrates that Glendale and the Gila River have successfully used their political influence to pass a law aimed at cutting down a competitor.

Glendale's prized sports-and-entertainment complex, which has restaurants, bars and retail shops and a nearby resort hotel and convention center, would be in direct competition for entertainment dollars with a casino that would also sport the same amenities.

And of course, the Gila River Indian Community, which controls the casinos closest to the West Valley, also is in direct competition with the Tohono O'odham Nation for those gambling dollars.

Nation leaders say they have tried to talk to Glendale about ways to make the project mutually beneficial, but Glendale leaders have not been willing to participate in the discussions.

The fight that has pitted the Tohono O'odham Nation against Glendale, the Gila River Indian Community, and many of Arizona's political leaders is nowhere near over.

State politicos already are embroiled in a lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Interior for taking the Nation's land into trust. Tribal leaders believe that this measure was rushed into law to get ahead of a federal hearing on February 17.

"This legislation is clearly unconstitutional and represents a desperate attempt by project opponents to stop this important economic development project," Ned Norris Jr., chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, stated in a press release. "The Tohono O'odham Nation is fully committed to using all available resources to stop the implementation of this unconstitutional legislation."

For details about why the Tohono O'odham Nation, a southern Arizona tribe, ended up with land in the West Valley and why politicians in Arizona are going to such extremes to block the casino, read Wanna Bet?, a New Times feature story that explored these issues.

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