Tohono O'odham Nation Scores Major Legal Victory Over Glendale; One Step Closer to West Valley Casino

The Arizona Court of Appeals has delivered a blow to Glendale officials trying to block the Tohono O'odham Nation from building a resort-style casino near the city's border.

The court ruled that the Nation's entire 135-acre parcel near 95th and Northern avenues is outside of Glendale's boundaries. A previous trial court ruling had gone in Glendale's favor and declared that 81 acres of the Nation's 135-acre parcel was within the city.

The Nation appealed, and essentially won back control of those 81 acres. And it also won legal fees, which now have to come out of the pockets of Glendale taxpayers.

Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said the court's decision was "another major step forward" for the casino, which will bring thousands of jobs and economic opportunity to the West Valley.

Whether the land is legally part of the city matters because an Indian reservation cannot be created on land that is incorporated into the boundaries of a municipality ... and, in Arizona, casinos are only allowed on Indian reservations.

Since the Department of the Interior and a U.S. District Court have previously ruled that undisputed 54 acres of the Nation's land in the West Valley meets all the legal requirements to be taken into trust on behalf of the Nation, it is expected that the remaining 81 acres also will be taken into trust -- that is, dubbed a reservation for the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Glendale officials argued that those 81 acres were in Glendale because in November 2010, before the Nation bought the land, the city passed a law annexing it. A month later, the landowner at the time, sued the city in Maricopa County Superior Court to undo the city's annexation.

Before the property owners lawsuit could move through the courts, the Glendale City Council reversed its own annexation decision and in May 2002 abandoned the land.

It was around that time that the Nation bought the land and started formulating plans for a West Valley casino.

When the Nation announced its casino plans, Glendale officials tripped over themselves searching for any legal arguments they could use to derail the Nation's plans.

That's when they dug up their 2002 decision to abandon the land and said, Oops, our bad. We didn't have the legal right to abandon that land, so it's still part of Glendale."

The Court of Appeals didn't buy it.

Glendale argued that if the courts ended up ruling that the land was not part of Glendale, then state law required a "judicial de-annexation" before the Nation could regain full control of their property.

The Court of Appeals said that what Glendale was asking for -- for the courts to de-annex land from a city -- would set a bad legal precedent and create a "chaotic" process.

It would put the court in a position where they might be "voiding election results, ordering the return of tax revenue, and overturning criminal violations of now inapplicable city codes and ordinances."

For example, if a homeowner was charged with violating a city law when suddenly the court de-annexed his neighborhood from the city, then those city laws would no longer apply to those homeowners. Any penalties, fines, jail time would have to be overturned. And what about the taxes those homeowners had been paying the city? That money would have to be returned.

The courts would have to engage in the "complicated process of unwinding the annexation after the fact," the Court of Appeals noted in its ruling.

And they weren't going to go there.

In a statement released after the ruling, Norris said:

"For more than two years, all we have asked of the City of Glendale is that they come to the table to work together on this positive economic development project. Despite repeated requests, Glendale has refused and instead continues to try to use the courts in a desperate and expensive attempt to stop job creation and positive economic impacts. This ruling further demonstrates that these misguided attempts must be stopped and it is time to work together to the benefit of all of our communities."
The West Valley Resort is expected to draw 1.2 million people to the area each year, have an annual $300 million economic impact, and create more than 9,000 jobs during the construction of the facility and resulting day-to-day operations.

Read "Wanna Bet," a New Times feature on the Nation's struggle to build the casino.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo

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