Community, Conservation Groups Challenge Monticello Casino Approval
Lawsuit Says Feds Flouted Legal Requirement for Comprehensive Impact Assessment
ALBANY (February 13, 2007) -- A group of community and conservation organizations went to court today challenging a recent federal approval for a massive casino development proposal slated for Sullivan County’s Monticello Raceway until federal officials complete a comprehensive assessment of the congestion, sprawl, pollution and other community impacts that would result.
“Sullivan County citizens deserve a complete examination of how this massive casino development will affect their daily lives,” said Richard Schrader, New York Legislative Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Some folks down in Washington may want to cut the corners, but the Catskills communities deserve better. They are entitled to protection and fairness by law.”
The Sullivan County Farm Bureau, the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Orange Environment, Inc., say the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) dodged its legal responsibility to protect Catskill residents by failing to require a full environmental impact evaluation of the proposed Las Vegas-style gaming development.
They are asking a judge to stop development plans from moving forward until full measure can be taken of the impact on nearby communities and their environment.
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.
“In order to protect the agricultural industry, which is so important to the character and identity of the Catskills, we need an environmental review that addresses very basic concerns about air pollution, traffic jams, and quality of life issues that will affect the community” said Wes Gillingham of the Sullivan County Farm Bureau. “It is not asking too much; it is simply asking that government obey the law.”
The National Environmental Policy Act requires a full environmental impact statement (EIS) for all developments of the size and scope of the proposed Monticello Raceway casino. But instead the BIA accepted a far less comprehensive review called an environmental assessment (EA).
In so doing, the groups say BIA is shirking not only the law, but also precedent. The BIA previously required full environmental impact statements for similar Catskill casino schemes, including an earlier proposal by the St. Regis Tribe itself to build at the nearby Kutsher’s Sports Camp.
“The building of this casino is going to bring increased congestion to Route 17 -- our Main Street -- and more air pollution to the region,” said Michael R. Edelstein, president of Orange Environment, Inc. “There is an obligation to show how this casino project and others would alter every day life, health and safety, and the economy throughout the impacted area. And, as things now stand, the federal government has failed to consider real alternatives to the proposed Raceway casino or how the negative impacts might be mitigated.”
The co-plaintiffs also attest that the information Empire Resorts provided in the EA submitted to the BIA is outdated and incomplete, ignoring the impact throughout the region of sharply increased traffic on Rt. 17 and the resulting pollution in Orange County (an area that already fails to meet federal air quality standards) in particular. They say it also relies on outdated studies based on economic data and market conditions ten to fourteen years old. Nor does it fully take into account the cumulative impact of several other casino projects planned for the county.
“Empire Resort’s environmental review disregards the most current traffic, pollution and economic information on the Catskills region. Decisions should not be made based on decade-old analysis,” said Tom Alworth, executive director of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development. “The community has a right to have their key concerns addressed before ground is broken on this development.”
This lawsuit will be jointly litigated by Whiteman, Osterman & Hannah, LLP and NRDC.