Group challenging tribal golf course - Environmentalists say county granted permits illegally


Skagit Valley Herald

Skagit County, WA - 8/31/02 - A golf course under construction by the Upper Skagit Tribe is being challenged by an environmental group that wants the development to be subject to newer, stricter environmental rules.

"Whether this is a valid project under today's rules, we have no idea," said Ranger Kidwell-Ross, president of Habitat Watch, the group challenging the course.

To Doreen Maloney, general manager of the tribe, the challenge is an insult. The tribe goes out of its way to make all its projects environmentally sound, she said.

Technically, Habitat Watch's legal complaints are against Skagit County, which granted two permit extensions illegally, the group says. If the group wins its case, it could put a hold on a project that tribal officials say is vital to diversifying their economy.

The 18-hole course is to be called Chuckanut Crest and is expected to open in June 2004.

The golf course, located just north of the tribe's Bow Hill Road casino on Interstate 5, was proposed in 1993 by a development company. A special-use permit was granted, requiring construction to start before June 14, 1995. Before that deadline ran out, a two-year extension was granted, taking the deadline to 1997.

In 1997 and then again in 1998, extensions were requested by Port Gardner Timber, which had bought the property. Both extensions were granted for two years, taking the deadline to 1999 and then to 2001.

There were two mistakes, though, both of which are central to Habitat Watch's case.

First, the last two extensions were granted without a public hearing and without notice, which makes them illegal, argued Jeff Eustis, the group's lawyer.

Second, the 1998 written decision said the extension was for two years, but also gave a deadline of June 14, 2002 - effectively a three-year extension.

Those decisions were made by Bob Schofield, who was the county's hearing examiner at the time. Schofield has since died, so county staff can't ask him whether he meant the extension to be two years or three.

The Upper Skagit Tribe bought the land in 2000 and submitted a development application, effectively starting the project, in February 2002. If the extension was for two years, then the application was too late and the special-use permit is void. If the extension was for three years, the tribe made the deadline with months to spare.

The decision is now in the hands of Schofield's successor, Wick Dufford. Dufford heard arguments from lawyers and county staff on Tuesday.

The county argued that Habitat Watch should have appealed the extensions when they were granted. Eustis disagreed.

"Habitat Watch could not have known to appeal those extensions," Eustis said. "The positions being advanced by the county are a direct affront to due process of law."

Habitat Watch opposed the course in 1993, and would have appealed the extensions if it had known they were issued, said Kidwell-Ross. But the county didn't even place legal notices about the hearings or decisions, he said.

In any case, the tribe is an innocent party whose only mistake was assuming permits granted by the county were valid, said LeAnne Bremer, the lawyer for the tribe.

Neighbors of the golf course speaking at the hearing said they weren't opposed to the course, they just wanted more study done.

The environmental impact statement for the course was prepared under 1992 standards and 1992 laws, Kidwell-Ross said. Those are much looser than the laws today, he said.

He also wondered why the county staff didn't question the two- or three-year extension when it was granted.

For Maloney, it's a matter of tribal survival. The tribe paid $2.25 million for the land, and it needs the revenue the course will provide to support its governmental and cultural programs.

Kidwell-Ross praised the tribe for its work on most projects, and said it's unfortunate that the tribe is the applicant in this case.


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