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Star Lake Casino opponents say the project is still not a done deal

Artist rendering of the proposed Star Lake Casino.1 / 2
Map of the proposed casino location. Forum News Service2 / 2

Opponents of the Star Lake Casino say the White Earth Nation project is still a long ways from being built.

Ty Dayton, president of the Star Lake Concerned Citizens Group, says the project faces environmental obstacles.

“It’s far from a done deal,” Dayton said. “There are a number of steps that still need to be resolved. The (Otter Tail) county still needs to discuss this in front of the public, and there is the potential (for county commissioners) to escalate this from an environmental assessment worksheet to an environmental impact statement.

White Earth wants to build a casino and resort on 15 acres of trust land and another 225 acres of "fee land" that has been purchased by the tribe to provide room for parking utility operations, transportation access and other infrastructure included in the development.

Dayton said the trust land is mostly various types of wetland, placed in trust by the federal government in 1938 to provide tribal access to the wild rice beds that grow right off the site of the proposed casino.

“That shallow bay is an extremely important habitat for panfish that feed the great fishery of Star Lake. It’s also an important breeding ground for wildfowl -- that’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created preserves to the north and west of Star Lake and to the south and east of Dead Lake,” Dayton said. “This is about as environmentally sensitive an area as you can get.”

“Cranes nest there, dozens of loons, bald eagles, red-necked grebes,” he added. “There are also historical archeological sites there with artifacts, because for decades that area has been accessed by White Earth members.”

Efforts to give the bay environmental protection lake status were unsuccessful, he said.

The site is in a remote part of the county without major highways, Dayton continued, and the area already suffers from a worker shortage. Plans by the tribe to bus workers 90 minutes each way from Mahnomen are not feasible in the long run.

Shooting Star Casino General Manager Bill Marsh did not return several phone messages to the Detroit Lakes Tribune for this story, but he told the Perham Focus last month that developers understand the environmental concerns, and are committed to creating little or no negative impact.

“White Earth has never wanted to harm the environment,” he said. “We've been very meticulous in our planning ... We're trying to be as accommodating and transparent as possible. We're trying to be as good of neighbors as we possibly can be.”

The development would stimulate the economy through the creation of jobs and increased foot traffic, improving overall tourism throughout the area, Marsh said.

If the casino is built, it could help bring more people and homes to the area, as many as 500 new housing units over the next 25 years — a 42 percent increase over the existing housing stock, according to a limited comprehensive plan put out by Otter Tail County and the White Earth Nation.

But Dayton said a lot of area residents are unhappy with the county’s approach to the casino proposal.

“Many of us are upset that the county seems to be promoting this,” he said. “The county is doing an unfair deal by painting the perception that this will be great for everybody … There’s a lot of opposition out here -- we got over 700 signatures on a petition to escalate the environmental assessment worksheet to an environmental impact statement last summer.”

Doug Huebsch, chair of the Otter Tail County Board of Commissioners, said county officials have been working through the environmental review process with the help of an independent consultant, making sure to follow all the proper procedures and laws regarding a development such as this.

“There are a lot of people for and against the casino,” he said. “Right now, we are listening to the concerns that have been expressed, on both sides.”

He said Otter Tail County does not have jurisdiction over the trust land (which is controlled by treaty with the U.S. government, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Army Corp of Engineers) or the casino’s septic system, which is governed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.  The county does have jurisdiction over a part of the proposed parking lot that is within 1,000 feet of the lakeshore.

“Once we accept the EAW (environmental assessment worksheet) as complete, it will be registered with the Environmental Quality Board, at which point the reviewers will have 30 days to submit comments and Otter Tail County may host a public meeting,” he said.

After that, the county will make a determination on whether or not an environmental impact statement is needed. 

The only permit granted by the county so far came last year, when it allowed soil boring samples. Further permitting and approval actions required by the county board are on hold until the environmental review process is complete.

Developers say the casino should open in late fall 2018. It will feature a 10,000-square-foot conference center, 6,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor pool and spa area, restaurant and gift shop, full service bar and grill, entertainment lounge, 180 hotel rooms, RV park, and as many as 850 slot machines and other amenities.

Perham Focus reporter Marie Johnson contributed to this report