Tribal tax fight to continue

Casino: Resort now part of Chehalis reservation, but county's not ready to give up on lawsuit over taxes

March 18, 2010 

  • What's next

    Thurston County Assessor Patricia Costello is headed to U.S. District Court in Tacoma today to hear oral arguments in the federal lawsuit over whether the operators of the Great Wolf Lodge must pay property taxes on buildings on tribal land.

The Chehalis Tribes' 4,200-acre reservation in Thurston and Grays Harbor counties is a little bit larger after the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved a 213-acre expansion of the property this month.

The decision, which the tribe sought almost a year ago, changes the legal status of eight parcels, four each in Thurston and Grays Harbor County, from off-reservation trust land to on-reservation trust land. It means Great Wolf Lodge now is part of on-reservation trust land. But the new designation likely won’t affect a lawsuit over tax payments, Thurston County Assessor Patricia Costello said.

The lawsuit involves Thurston County and CTGW LLC, a company formed by the tribe and Great Wolf Resorts, joint owners of the lodge. The company sued the county after Costello included the resort buildings on the county’s property-tax rolls.

Costello acknowledged Wednesday that the land now is tax-exempt, but she said county officials think the improved property with buildings is not tax-exempt. That improved property represents more than a $1 million a year in property taxes, she said, adding that if the buildings on it become tax-exempt, the burden will be shifted onto county taxpayers.

The tribe argues that taxing the improvements is an attack on the tribe’s self-governance and represents illegal interference in its economic development.

OTHER CHANGES

Tribal officials say the expansion gives the tribe greater jurisdictional authority over the cultural and environmental aspects of the land.

Law enforcement and emergency services also will be primarily handled by the tribe in those areas, government relations director Jeff Warnke said Wednesday.

“Our land has fish, wildlife, and other foods and materials that tribal members utilize for subsistence and ceremonial purposes,” Tribal Chairman David Burnett said. “As a sovereign nation, we have sole jurisdiction over our own resources to protect and enhance them as we have done for centuries.”

In Thurston County, the four parcels are:

 • A 0.9-acre parcel that is vacant except for a sign advertising the tribe’s “economic enterprise.” Among its enterprises is the Lucky Eagle Casino in Rochester.

 • A 7.4-acre abandoned railroad property to be maintained as a greenbelt along the south bank of the Chehalis River.

 • A 20-acre bed-and-breakfast property that houses government offices for the tribe.

 • A 43-acre property in Grand Mound that is used for a gasoline station/convenience store and Great Wolf Lodge.

In Grays Harbor County, the four parcels are a 97-acre parcel for grazing, farming, a gasoline station and convenience store; a 37-acre abandoned railroad property; a 7-acre property for Indian housing; and the “Oakville lots,” about a half-acre for Indian housing.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403

rboone@theolympian.com

www.theolympian.com/bizblog

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