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MONTICELLO, NY-The US Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs has ruled that the Final Environmental Assessment for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s $600-million casino to be built near Monticello Raceway is sufficient and now goes to Gov. George Pataki for approval.

The St. Regis Mohawks Tribe is developing the casino venture in partnership with Empire Resorts Inc.

The “Finding of No Significant Impact” designation is key to the project’s success since the Bureau of Indian Affairs will not require a full environmental impact study on the development.

Now that the FONSI has been issued, Pataki or his successor Gov.-elect Eliot Spitzer must sign off on a concurrence of the FONSI. After that has been secured, the Department of Interior’s agreement to take the Monticello property into trust for the tribe is the last regulatory step before the project can break ground.

Interior Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason in a Dec. 21 letter to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe detailing the FONSI designation, stated, “The present action is narrow in scope and should not be regarded as suggesting a future commitment to take the subject land into trust or to approve a compact to conduct gaming on that property pursuant to Section 20 of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.”

Cason in his letter notes that the statutory, regulatory, and policy environment is changing with regard to Section 20 gaming applications and specifically “off-reservation gaming.”

“We share the concerns that many have expressed with off-reservation gaming and so-called ‘reservation shopping,’” he stated. “The department will be reviewing the regulations that govern the processing of fee-into-trust applications. We anticipate changes to the rules that may result in fewer off-reservation properties being accepted into trust.”

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe already has an existing reservation of almost 15,000 acres of land in Upstate New York, which is held in restricted fee status, according to the Department of the Interior. The tribe has proposed that the US take another 29.31 acres of land into trust for its casino project by Monticello Raceway.

Commenting on the FONSI designation and warnings regarding problems some in Congress have with off-reservation gaming, David Hanlon, Empire’s Resorts president and CEO stated, “Our enhanced Environmental Assessment has been meticulously reviewed and approved over an extended period of time and we are pleased that now the process can move forward. Importantly, it is clear from the Department of Interior’s transmittal letter that due to the evolving nature of off-reservation gaming in the United States, New York State and local officials should work together to immediately secure this unique economic development opportunity before the federal legislative or regulatory landscape inexorable changes–leaving Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Atlantic City the really big winners.”

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