NEW YORK (April 20, 2007) – In a move that will delay any final decision to approve the proposed Monticello Raceway casino in the Catskills, the U.S. government agreed this week that a decision must first be reached on the adequacy of the Interior Department’s assessment of the casino’s environmental impact on surrounding communities before the Department would be allowed to take the land into trust.
“All along, our coalition has called for a full environmental review, establishing how this casino project would forever alter the quality of life for Catskill citizens, before any final decision can be made,” said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the four plaintiffs in the case. “We’re pleased that we now have an agreement that will ensure that the court will have ample opportunity to review our claim, assuming the federal government even decides to move forward with this short-sighted proposal.”
According to the agreement, the U.S. District Court must hear and rule on this case before U.S. Interior Department Secretary Kempthorne will be allowed to take the land into trust to allow the construction of the casino complex.
The government further indicated in the court papers that Interior Department Secretary Kempthorne has not yet made a final decision on whether to actually approve the 29 acres-plus land transfer for the Monticello Raceway casino.
This agreement came in a lawsuit, filed on February 13th of this year, challenging the adequacy of the environmental review for the proposed Las Vegas-style casino. The suit, filed by a coalition of conservation and community groups, charges that the National Environmental Policy Act requires a formal Environmental Impact Statement before any federal approval is given for the proposed casino complex. As of now, only a significantly less thorough review process, called an Environmental Assessment, has been completed under federal law.
The agreement will last for at least six months with an option to extend longer, which means that any final decisions on the proposed development project will likely be delayed until fall 2007 or later.
Judge Charles L. Brieant of the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, endorsed the agreement, which was signed on Wednesday by lawyers for the federal government and the four groups that have challenged the environmental review - the Sullivan County Farm Bureau, Orange Environment, the Catskill Center for Conservation and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Plans for the half-billion-dollar facility, to be built by Empire Resorts, Inc. and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, include 766,000 square feet of floor area – equivalent to roughly 13 football fields – 4,200 casino gambling positions, a 600-seat theater, and a parking lot for 4,800 cars and buses. Nearly six million visitors a year are projected – 40 percent more than visit Grand Canyon National Park each year.
The conservation and community groups involved in this suit are challenging the more limited Environmental Assessment, because they believe it does not properly consider the impact increased traffic congestion will have on the region’s air quality and roads, including Route 17 – the southern Catskill region’s “Main Street.” They also cite the potential for sprawl and loss of farmland and open space, especially if more than one casino is built in Sullivan County.
The government and the conservation and community groups also agreed on Wednesday to allow the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and Empire Resorts to intervene in the case. However, their intervention does not affect the six-month stay of the proceedings or the delay until the merits of the environmental case are decided.