Tribe Resurrects Twentynine Palms Site In Bid To Establish Another Casino

TWENTYNINE PALMS — The Twentynine Palms Band of Mission Indians has revived in earnest its effort to develop and operate a casino on tribal land in Twentynine Palms.
If the tribe achieves environmental and land use approval for the project and takes it to completion, the casino will become the third gambling house  operating in San Bernardino County and the second one operated by the Twentynine Palms Band, which since 1995 has operated the Spotlight 29 Casino in Coachella in Riverside County.
The submission of a draft environmental impact report for the project within 29 Palms signals that the tribe has abandoned a similar effort in Joshua Tree after it was earlier discouraged from proceeding with the effort on its Twentynine Palms property, first submitted in 2007, for a 60,000-square-foot casino with 350 slot machines along with table games, a bingo hall, two restaurants and a sports bar.
At that time, the tribe was looking to attract not only traditional gamblers but a unique subset thereof as well, ones who would be content to spend the night not in a swanky casino hotel, but rather in recreational vehicles. Also proposed in the 2007 plan for the 160-acre development was an RV park that would accommodate up to 100 RVs and also provide tent camping and rustic cabins, campfire rings and barbecue facilities, along with hookups for   electricity, water, cable TV, and wastewater treatment. The project also called for wireless Internet access, swimming pools, showers, locker rooms, and a laundry facility.
The tribe, led by Darrell Mike, dubbed the proposed gaming house the Nüwü Casino.  Part of the reason that made the concept of locating the facility at the site south of Baseline Road and west of Adobe Road in Twentynine Palms attractive to the tribe made it unpopular with several forces to be reckoned with. The proximity of the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base, with its 8,400 plus service members and dependents, promised to make the undertaking a lucrative venture. But the Department of Defense was less than enthused at the prospect of having the temptation of a gaming enterprise at such easy disposal to its troops. Moreover, there was stiff resistance from a contingent of local residents and government agencies like the National Park Service. The project site is located within the city of Twentynine Palms’ National Park Buffer Overlay, which is intended to deter development that will interfere with the natural panorama.
Two years ago, the tribe reluctantly abandoned that plan and resolved to relocate the proposed Nüwü Casino some 23 miles away, in Joshua  Tree, on a 130-acre parcel on the north side of Twentynine Palms Highway west of White Feather Road east of downtown Joshua Tree and just east of Desert View Homes’ metal dinosaurs. That site was well outside the tribe’s reservation and what is recognized as the tribe’s ancestral land. To overcome the opposition of many vocal Joshua Tree residents as well as that of then-county supervisor Neil Derry and Joshua Tree municipal advisory council member David Fick, the tribe was forced to jump through a number of hoops. Those included filing an application with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to place the land in a public trust, transferring the tribe’s right from its tribal property to the Joshua Tree site and making a case that the tribe had ancestral roots in the Joshua Tree area, where it had an historical relationship to the property in question by virtue of aboriginal activity, including hunting, foraging and trading in particular.  That application would have entailed an anthropological study to demonstrate the tribe’s ancestors ranged into Joshua Tree.
Mike and his advisors, including the band’s chief financial officer, Steve Gralla, reassessed the likelihood of prevailing in a bruising battle with project opponents, and considered other issues relating to the project. Among those is the consideration that in December Derry was replaced as supervisor by James Ramos, the one-time chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which operates what is the largest Indian Casino in San Bernardino County, the San Manuel Casino in Highland. The San Manuel Band followed all elements of protocol in building its casino on tribal land.
The Twentynine Palms Band played things relatively close to the vest, undertaking in-depth surveying of the site in Twentynine Palms without making any sort of public pronouncement. When surveyors and other workers were spotted on the property in early January, Twentynine Palms City Manager Richard Warne inquired as to what was up, at which time it was disclosed that the tribe was considering the property once again as the site of its proposed gaming complex.
Mike has indicated the tribe wants to initiate construction as early as March.
On January 28 the tribe released a draft environmental impact statement for the proposed casino that had been prepared by Sacramento-based Environmental Science Associates.
That draft statement leaves no doubt that the tribe’s plan for constructing the 30,000-square-foot casino has advanced considerably.
According to Environmental Science Associates, what was formerly to be called the Nüwü Casino will now be known as the Tortoise Rock Casino and cover a footprint of roughly 32 of the 160 acres at that location owned by the tribe. In deference to the casino’s new namesake, a tortoise-exclusion barrier will be erected to protect the species from danger that might befall it on the to-be-developed property, which is to include a parking lot with 450 parking spaces.
The casino will be 35 feet high and offer its customers 500 slot machines, six card or roulette tables, a delicatessen, restaurant, bar, administrative offices and ancillary structures. The casino will employ approximately 100 full- and part-time workers.
In keeping with its presence within the National Park Buffer Overlay, the casino’s design is to incorporate natural colors in its building materials and paint schemes that complement the existing landscape as well as having external lighting shielded to keep light from being projected upward or onto adjacent property, in keeping with Twentynine Palms’ Night Sky Ordinance, according to the draft environmental statement.
The casino will be visible from Palm Vista Elementary School on Baseline Road, located 3,375 feet northeast of the project, as well as the  Oasis of Mara, which is a half mile northeast of the site. According to Environmental Science Associates, the one-story structure will obstruct to some degree the scenic views from residences to the north and east, Palm Vista Elementary to the northeast, the Oasis of Mara and those of motorists transiting Baseline Road, Adobe Road and Utah Trail. That obstruction will not be total, according to the draft report. “[T]he tops of mountainous areas to the south and west would still be visible behind the proposed development,” according to the draft statement.
Some negative impact on air quality in the nearby area will result from construction activity, according to the draft report.
“During project construction the project would result in dust emissions, exhaust from on-road vehicle and off-road equipment and fugitive emissions from pavement and architectural coatings” which will primarily impact Palm Vista Elementary School, and existing residential development 350 feet north and 2,200 feet southwest of the project site, the draft statement indicates.
To reduce air quality impacts during construction, the report says contractors will maintain their equipment and will anchor dust by watering dirt access roads and using surfactants on exposed earth, and suppress the creation of dust by reducing truck speed on unpaved surfaces. Grading will be discontinued on days when winds reach 25 miles per hour. Ground covering vegetation that is uprooted during the construction phase is to be replanted as soon as possible, according to the draft report.
The only impacts air quality-wise that will continue after the project is completed will be diesel emissions from bus and truck travel to the casino as well as minimal increases in “emissions from energy use, area sources… mobile sources…  landscape maintenance equipment, consumer products and architectural coatings used for routine maintenance,” according to the draft statement.
Water to the project will be provided by the Twentynine Palms Water District, which will extend servicer to the site by means of an 8-inch water line on Baseline Road.
With regard to the harm to biological resources near the site, the draft statement says the endangered desert tortoise does inhabit some of the tribe property, particularly within the southwestern portion of the reservation.
“Five desert tortoises have been identified on the reservation since 2009, of which four have been radiotagged,” according to the draft statement. “To date the four radiotagged tortoises have been located along the lower slopes of Queen Mountain, i.e. in the southwest corner of the reservation and nearby off-site areas.”
Care has been taken in locating the site where it is now proposed, according to the draft statement, with the tortoise in mind. “The project site has been chosen based on the absence of burrows and other signs during the 2013 clearance survey in the northwestern portion of the reservation.” Moreover, according to Environmental Science Associates, “As the project site does not contain desert tortoises and an exclusion fence would restrict desert tortoises from entering the development area, the construction/operation of the proposed project is not anticipated to result in direct significant, adverse impacts to desert tortoises.”
Public comment on the draft report can be made until near the end of the month and that input will be used in the drafting of a final environmental impact statement.
Written comments must be emailed or postmarked no later than 5 p.m. Feb. 27 and should be sent to Jennifer Wade,  Environmental Science Associates, 2600 Capitol Avenue, Suite 200, Sacramento, Calif. 95816 or to

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