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Opponents plan to keep fighting Rohnert Park casino

Published: Thursday, April 5, 2012 at 10:31 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 5, 2012 at 10:31 a.m.

The 254-acre Indian casino-resort proposed for Rohnert Park took a major step forward last Friday, despite ongoing concern from local groups and leaders that it would negatively impact Highway 101 traffic, groundwater supply, and access to low-income housing, among other things.

The project, which could include up to 3,000 slot machines, would be built on the outskirts of Rohnert Park. Many Petalumans have taken a personal interest in it and even joined lawsuits opposing it, believing that highway traffic and low-income housing will be impacted in Petaluma as well.

But on Friday, Governor Jerry Brown granted the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria a gaming compact. The state legislature and the Department of the Interior still have to approve the compact, but those steps are largely seen as formalities.

“Voting down a compact almost never happens, I have to be candid on that,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, who has long opposed the project, saying that communities, like Petaluma, that will be impacted, have had “virtually no say” in the project.

“I'll continue to oppose (this project) and make my best case,” he said, “but it's likely to be an uphill fight at this point.”

Still, local groups and leaders opposing the casino are still trying to stop it.

“This was expected, it's just the next step,” said Petaluma City Council Member Mike Healy, who joined a lawsuit opposing the project.

He said that he and other members of the Stop the Casino 101 coalition hope that the legislature will choose not to ratify the project because of its unusually large size and its proximity to a large urban area.

Healy added that opponents plan to file a suit challenging environmental aspects of the project within a couple weeks. Another suit may follow, he said.

County Supervisor and Petaluma resident David Rabbitt said that he doesn't want to see another casino in Sonoma County, but he also acknowledged that the Graton tribe has rights that must be respected.

“I readily acknowledge that when a tribe has land taken into trust, it has sovereign rights, which include building a casino,” he said.

“We're on the outside looking in, and we have to acknowledge what we can and can't do.”

At this point, the Graton tribe appears to have cleared many of the key hurdles to building the casino-resort.

In 2010, the federal government took the large parcel off Wilfred Avenue land into trust, making it exempt from local regulations.

The compact signed Friday would allow for a $433 million project. It could include up to 3,000 slot machines and a 200-room hotel.

Funding is one of the last hurdles the tribe must clear. The tribe is working with a Las Vegas casino company, Station Casinos, to finance the project.

A spokeswoman for Station Casinos deferred to the tribe for comment, but Graton Rancheria tribal chairman Greg Sarris did not respond to a call made Tuesday.

Last Friday, however, Station Casinos reported to the federal government that it plans to have raised enough money to begin construction by this summer.

The tribe estimates that the project will create 700 construction jobs and 2,500 jobs once the project is complete, according to a statement issued by Gov. Jerry Brown's office.

Also, up to 15 percent of the casino's winnings would go to local communities and gambling mitigation.

The tribe is already permitted to operate a Class II gaming facility with bingo slot machines and card tables.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@argus courier.com)

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