Tribe Sponsored Bill to Overrule Local Land Use Decisions on Landfill Goes to Governor


A landfill project opposed by a casino-operating San Diego Indian tribe would be prohibited under legislation sent to Gov. Jerry Brown by the Legislature August 31.

The fight over siting the landfill has lasted more than 17 years, spawned the most expensive county ballot measure in San Diego history and sparked numerous legal tussles, several of which reached the state Supreme Court.

Developers of the landfill are close to receiving their final permits, despite numerous challenges by the Pala Band of Mission Indians.

The legislation is a last ditch effort by the Pala Indian Tribe to stop a 308-acre landfill in Gregory Canyon on the western side of a mountain that borders their reservation.

Project backers have been working more than 12 years to complete the environmental review and win the necessary permits to being operation as well as fighting Pala in court and at the ballot box.

Opponents of the bill say it sets a troubling precedent:

A developer can obey local land use laws, obtain the needed permits, spend $60 million doing so — as Gregory Canyon’s owners says they have — be close to finally breaking ground and then an act of the state Legislature changes the law and eliminates the project.

The bill, SB 833, is being carried by Sen. Juan Vargas, a San Diego Democrat who is running for Congress.

A 70 to 1 vote by the Assembly sent the bill to the Democratic governor, who has taken no public position on the bill.

Sen. Juan Vargas

“Seldom do Republicans and Democrats agree, almost completely, on an important issue in Sacramento, as they have today in trying to stop a dump from being built on a river and Native American sacred site,” said Vargas in a statement after the Assembly action.

As a San Diego City Councilman Vargas supported the landfill, which would be the first to be constructed in the northern part of San Diego County.

He also wrote in opposition to previous legislation in 2000 with the same objective as his current bill.

That bill was vetoed by then Gov. Gray Davis.

Vargas says he changed his mind after touring the site which is near State Route 76, three miles east of the Interstate 15.

“I was shocked to find out that it literally is right on the river where they want to build this dumb dump,” Vargas told Capitol Weekly in July.

“The way it had been explained to me certainly through all the propaganda that they had was that this place was way out in the middle of nowhere, nowhere near the river and already on disturbed land.

“None of that is true. It’s actually right on the river and the disturbed part of the land is a very small portion of it. It makes absolutely no sense to put a dump right on a river. I can’t think of dumber place to put it.”

Supporters of the measure, which include 15 other Indian bands in addition to Pala, say that Gregory Mountain above the canyon is a sacred site and construction of the landfill – besides potentially threatening the water quality of the nearby San Luis Rey River – amounts to desecration.

Vargas’ bill is specifically aimed at preventing construction of Gregory Canyon by prohibiting a landfill within 1,000 feet of the San Luis Rey River and within 1,000 feet of a Native American site. While the bill doesn’t mention Gregory Canyon by name, the proposed project meets both of the bill’s criteria.

The Pala Casino

Backers of Gregory Canyon claim the easy movement of Vargas’ bill through the Legislature – and its bipartisan support – stems from generous campaign contributions.

Combined, the 16 bands of Indians supporting the Vargas bill – plus the California Tribal Business Alliance, another backer – made nearly $6.6 million in campaign contributions during the last two-year legislative session and the first quarter of 2011, state contribution reports show.

Pala and other tribes say Gregory Mountain – “Chokla” – is one of the places where the spirit “Takwish” lives. The same spirit that Tahquitz Peak in Riverside County is named after. 

If Takwish were to alight on Chokla today and look east he would see the Pala Casino Spa and Resort with a 10-story, 507-room hotel, 10,000-square-foot day spa and 10 restaurants.

(Here’s the July Capitol Weekly report on the legislation.)






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