Out in Jamul, about a mile past the Simpson's nursery complex, just past the fire station, and before the small town gives way to open grassland, a cluster of prefabricated and trailer homes crown a hillock to the southwest of the road. A quarter of the way up the hillside behind the village, a tiny white church stands in contrast to the gray-green chaparral behind it. A cluster of gravestones is just visible from the road. A sign along the road announces that this is the Jamul Indian Village. Since 1981, it has been recognized by the federal government as an Indian reservation, with 56 members to its tribe. And since the early '90s, it's been the center of a hot debate: Indian gaming.
Though the argument has raged for the better part of a decade, no casino has ever been built. Not that Jamul Indians couldn't have built a casino already, Bill Mesa, tribal councilmember, is quick to point out. "If we wanted to," the former El Cajon police officer says, "we could right now put up a building and, if we could get machine licenses, put machines and tables and everything else that we want, and open a casino."
What's stopping the Jamul Indians (who, like the bands on the Sycuan, Barona, and Viejas reservations, are Kumeyaay) is the size of their reservation. Where the big three in Indian gaming — Barona, Sycuan, and Viejas — have 6000, 640, and 1600 acres, respectively, the Jamul Indian Village sits on 6 acres. Four and a half were donated by the Daley Family, which owns much of the undeveloped ranch land around Jamul, and one and a half — including the church and graveyard — were given to the tribe by the Catholic Church.
Because most nongaming Indian tribes, including the Jamul band, lack the necessary resources, outside investors must fund the planning and building of reservation casinos. "And they want size," says Jamul resident and anti-casino activist Rick Hennen. "They need the size in order to make it economically feasible. But [on six acres] they are only going to be able to build something that is 16,000-20,000 square feet. That is all their land will support. Nobody is going to want to come in here and operate a casino that small. They want to be able to have 2000 slots, the maximum a tribe is allowed to have. In order to support 2000 slots, you have got to have 2000 parking spaces, the room to put the machines, etcetera."
But the Jamul Indians do have significant outside monetary investment, and they are planning a full-size casino. Though Mesa insists no plans have been finalized, he says the most current design proposal submitted by the architectural firm he has retained, Urban Design, out of Dallas, Texas, "was about 240,000 feet. That included parking — 95,000 square feet of gaming area."
Sitting at a heavy wooden conference table in the modular tribal office building, Mesa insists that his tribe and its investors, Lakes Gaming out of Minnesota and Keane-Argovitz Resorts out of Texas, aren't going to accomplish this feat by building skyward. "It is not going to be, regardless of what anybody will tell you, or what you see on anybody's website — Jamulians Against Casinos or Dianne Jacob's or anybody else's — we are not planning on building a 17-story Vegas-style casino. The tribe met with several architects before we found one that will build something that we thought was subdued, that will fit into the countryside, and that we could live with too. Because, frankly, the tribe did not want the Hard Rock Cafe. We did not want a monstrosity in here, we just wanted a casino." The key to the Indians' plan is to effectively expand the reservation. Mesa says, "Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the idea was that you could game on property. IGR said that if you had property in trust -- in other words, you are a recognized Indian reservation, before the time that this law was passed, 1988 — that it is okay to game on it. Well, for us, that is a 6-acre strip of land. So our priority at first was more land. And prior to even hooking up with Lakes, we had purchased the land where the fire station is. That property belongs to the tribe; it is a 4-acre plot that belongs to us. The fire department has been on a multiyear lease that they get for $1 a year. So when Lakes came in, they bought another 87-acre parcel to the west, and then just to the other side of Melody Lane, that little road that you pass when you drive in here, there is a 10-acre parcel that they purchased. What we are working on right now is getting that land put into trust. When I say put into trust: once it is in trust to the federal government for the Jamul Indian Village, it will become Indian reservation land. And then we can game on that land."
Patrick Webb, a Jamulian attorney who has waged a one-man legal war against the Jamul band's casino plans, disputes Mesa's claim that newly acquired land would make gaming legal. It's one of a few fronts on which he's fought the war against the casino. "[The Indians] believe," Webb says, "that if that land was in trust status, that it would qualify to allow Indian gaming to take place on it. [My clients] do not believe that is what the statute says. The National Indian Gaming Statute says that you have to have a reservation that is either declared as a reservation by the President, by Congress, or by a treaty ratified by the Senate."
Mesa says that's only half of the story. "The federal regulations on that issue say you can game on land contiguous [to a previously existing reservation]. And all the land we're buying is contiguous to the original land."