The White Earth Nation has temporarily stepped back from the issue of pursuing a casino complex on Star Lake in Otter Tail County.
June elections on the White Earth Reservation saw Alan Roy defeat incumbent Tara Mason 1,134 to 1,082 for the position of secretary-treasurer. Raymond Auginaush Sr. won his representative race with Steven Clark by only four votes.
"We've got some new people," Acting Chief Executive Officer Ron Valiant said. "They put on hold a lot of our projects going on right now so they can figure out where the money is coming from, how the budgets are and everything like that. There was a lot of monies going out, so they are just trying to find out if we have the monies to move forward on some of these projects."
While Auginaush supposedly won his bid for a place on the council, the close vote has sparked a recount and now an appeal, leaving his status in limbo. He is presently being referred to as a representative-elect.
"What I know was that there was an election up at the White Earth Nation June 12," Otter Tail County District 2 Commissioner Wayne Johnson said last week. "The two people who got elected to the council were vocally opposed to the Star Lake Casino."
The White Earth Nation announced plans in the fall of 2015 of building a casino, hotel and convention center on 14.7 acres of trust land set aside for their benefit by the federal government. The band had purchased an additional 270 acres of land adjacent to the trust land for a parking lot, an RV park and other amenities.
Star Lake is one of Otter Tail's largest lakes with 4,453 acres of water surface. Like many of Otter Tail's big lakes, it is heavily populated by both summer and year-round residents. According to Sherry Leabo, Otter Tail County's GIS Database Coordinator, there are 578 riparian (waterfront) parcels on Star Lake based on the Assessor's front footage code. Of those, 374 have physical addresses. There are 254 seasonal addresses and 107 residential. Eight are agriculturaql and five are exempt.
The idea of a large gambling complex being built on the lake prompted an opposition group, the Star Lake Concerned Citizens Group, to be formed. According to the group's website, the concerns they have stated include water and noise pollution, a potential for harm to the lake's aquatic population and a strain on law enforcement services and traffic routes. The group also believes the construction of complex would affect other area lakes and the residents in Star, Dora and Dead Lake Townships.
Johnson, who represents a part of the county that includes Star Lake, said the White Earth Band approached the county board because of the need for a permit to build their parking lot. The band provided the required Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW), but after reviewing it the board decided there were a number of points on which the board needed further information. They informed the White Earth Nation last September they wanted an Environmental Impact Statement and required the band to pay the EIS scoping fee of nearly $30,000.
"We weren't satisfied we had enough information to make an informed decision," said Johnson, adding that the county board has had no official contact with the White Earth Nation or the Shooting Star Casinos since requiring payment of the EIS fee.
Johnson did point out that Otter Tail County "has not lost a dime" in property tax revenue because the land purchased by the band is taxed farmland and the trust land was never taxed.
Because filling in a wetland is a part of the building plans, the trump card really belongs to the United States Corps of Engineers (USACE). According to Rob Maroney, a regulatory project manager at the USACE Office in Brainerd, any major project on Star Lake would require approval by the Corps.
"What we regulate under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act is the discharge of dredged or fill material in the waters of the United States," Maroney said.
The White Earth band has withdrawn it's permit application with the USACE, according to Maroney, but it can be opened again in the future.
Neither the USACE or the Otter Tail County Board are proponents or opponents of the casino project.