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McFeely: Star Lake casino opponents get a victory, for now

Otter Tail County commissioners Wayne Johnson, left, and Doug Huebsch listen to a presentation by consultant Larry Krampa at a board meeting Tuesday, Aug. 22 in Fergus Falls, Minn. (Photo by Mike McFeely / The Forum)1 / 2
White Earth Band of Chippewa attorney Joe Plummer speaks with a reporter at the Otter Tail County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday, Aug. 22, in Fergus Falls, Minn. (Photo by Mike McFeely / The Forum)2 / 2

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Opponents of a proposed casino project on Minnesota's Star Lake won an important victory Tuesday, Aug. 22, but whether it's a lasting one is far from determined. This story has all the makings of an it's-never-over-'til-it's-over tale.

The five-member Otter Tail County board of commissioners voted unanimously to require an environmental impact statement on the proposal by the White Earth Band of Chippewa, which wants to build a 270-acre gambling and resort complex on the south arm of Star Lake.

This is what cabin owners, area residents and citizens generally concerned with the sensitive environment of Star Lake have been seeking for months. It means the county will take a much more thorough and lengthy look at the impacts of the massive project, as opposed to a voluntary environmental assessment worksheet already submitted by the tribe.

"This is a good first step. I commend the commissioners for unanimously voting for an EIS," said Ty Dayton of the Star Lake Concerned Citizens Group, a collection of people opposed to the casino.

Note the words "first step." Dayton's reaction after the meeting was muted, as was that of the 50 or so people in attendance at the commission board room at the County Government Services Center. There was almost no reaction from the gallery when the board cast its vote after a 90-minute presentation by consultant Larry Kramka of Twin Cities-based Houston Engineering. It seemed odd given the commissioners voting for an EIS was a significant and hard-won victory.

That's because the next step is as critical as the first. The next battle will be over the scope of the EIS—what it will include and how deeply and broadly concerns will be looked at. Opponents want it as broad as possible to put up as many obstacles as possible. Supporters will try to keep it narrow, for obvious reasons.

"We would prefer it be very broad and very deep," Dayton said.

The band's strategy was revealed when its attorney, Joe Plummer, made his way to the front of the room at the invitation of the commission—and promptly made a thinly veiled threat of legal action against the county over which government entity's rules apply to Indian trust land. Plummer said the band was willing to "consent to a voluntary EIS" on eight concerns listed by Kramka. Otter Tail County attorney Dave Hauser countered, saying the scope of the EIS will be determined by the board, the tribe and public input.

That's good for opponents. The list of so-called potentially significant impacts presented by Kramka included things like boating, land use, wetland loss, habitat effects on the lake, wastewater treatment, groundwater, traffic and social effects. But while Kramka recommended an EIS, his analysis minimized many of the potential impacts. He said, for example, he saw no potential for significant environmental impact from increased traffic to the new casino. Boating on Star Lake, too, would not be affected by a casino on the lake, Kramka said.

Board chairman Doug Huebsch of Perham took exception, saying he got stuck in a two-hour traffic jam while going to a concert at Treasure Island Casino south of the Twin Cities.

"I picture myself trying to get to my lake place and sitting in a traffic jam for two hours," Huebsch said. " I don't agree that boating and traffic shouldn't be included in an EIS."

And so begins the next fight in the ongoing saga of the Star Lake casino. Opponents won the first step, but can they win the next? And the one after that? And ... well, you get the idea. We'll know in several weeks the scope of the EIS and the chances of concerned Star Lake citizens winning not only a battle, but the war.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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