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Graton tribe concerned over casino possibility

Highway 101 at Kastania Road looking across at land owned by the Dry Creek Rancheria band of Pomo Indians.

Scott Manchester/For The Argus-Courier
Published: Friday, July 26, 2013 at 1:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 at 1:35 p.m.

The possibility of a casino south of town has created an unlikely alliance between city officials and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria — who have previously been at odds over the Graton Tribe's Rohnert Park casino.

Fearing efforts by the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians to get the 277-acre parcel south of Petaluma taken into federal trust — a typical precursor to building a casino — Graton tribal Chairman Greg Sarris echoed local officials' concerns about Dry Creek's intentions for the property this week.

“The Graton Indians oppose (the Dry Creek tribe) putting the land into trust for any reason,” said Sarris. “If (the tribe) wanted to build ball fields, housing and a gas station, why don't they do it up in Geyserville, where their land is already in trust? (Their tribal chairman) has another agenda.”

The Dry Creek tribe first purchased the property next to Highway 101 in 2005. The land is currently zoned for agricultural uses by the county. After buying the land near the height of the housing bubble, the tribe announced plans to build a gaming casino on the site, submitting an application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to have the land taken into federal trust.

But after a public vote showed that 79 percent of Petaluma voters rejected the proposed casino, Dry Creek allowed their federal trust application to expire and signed an agreement with Sonoma County not to pursue gaming on the property until 2016.

Recently, Dry Creek's tribal chairman Harvey Hopkins told local officials that he has no plans to build a casino on the site. Instead, he submitted development plans to local officials that include ball fields, a 40-parcel subdivision for tribal housing, a gas station, restaurants, and two, large undesignated sites listed as “Agricultural/Future Development.”

Hopkins did not return numerous calls for comment, though he recently told a Press Democrat reporter that he would not be pursuing gaming at that location.

Now, the tribe's non-gaming agreement with the county is nearing its expiration date at the same time that the Graton Rancheria's large Rohnert Park casino readies to open. Hopkins told a Press Democrat reporter that the Graton casino threatens to pull more than 30 percent of profits away from Dry Creek's existing casino in Geyserville.

But despite assurances from Hopkins, Sarris and local officials remain concerned about Dry Creek's intentions. City Councilmember Mike Healy, who has opposed casinos in Sonoma County for many years, has drafted a letter he hopes the City Council will sign and send to Sen. Dianne Feinsten, D-Calif, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif and Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. The letter asks the state leaders to oppose Dry Creek's federal trust application.

“The tribe has long had the ability to develop the property, consistent with applicable state and local land use and zoning laws,” write Healy in the letter. “We are concerned that the only reason for the tribe to transfer the property in trust to the federal government would be an attempt to circumvent these laws.”

The letter, which will be discussed at Petaluma's Aug. 5 City Council meeting, goes on to point out that if the land is taken into federal trust, it could qualify for gaming in the future. It also points to tribal plans to build a fire station on site, which Healy said suggest a more intensive land-use than what is proposed in the plans Hopkins sent to local officials, especially since the San Antonio fire department already has a station less than a mile away.

“Thus, it is not alarmist to question the tribe's long-term non-interest in developing a casino,” Healy wrote in the letter.

Sarris, who has a vested interest in blocking a competing casino being built so close to his Rohnert Park location, asked why the Dry Creek tribe would not sign a legally binding agreement with the county agreeing never to pursue gaming at the site. He said that his tribe signed a similar agreement, promising not to build more casinos in Sonoma County, as a condition of getting approval for the Rohnert Park casino.

“The city and the county shouldn't even consider talking to him about developing the site unless he's willing to sign an agreement that if the land is taken into trust, it will never be used for gaming,” said Sarris. “Let's call his bluff.”

County Supervisor David Rabbitt said that he has spoken at length with Hopkins about his plans for the site, but still has his concerns. Those concerns stem from the large, unaccounted-for open spaces on the tribe's plans and to the lack of transparency in the federal land-to-trust process.

“Lately, the Bureau of Indians Affairs has been making it more difficult for affected jurisdictions to stay in the loop,” said Rabbit. “It's more difficult to follow an application. We call the BIA and can't find out for certain if there is an application and where in process it is, because the BIA isn't required to tell you anything until an application is finalized. That's why there's always this 900-pound gorilla in the form of a casino at the back of every conversation.”

Rabbitt, who has been discussing his casino concerns with Sen. Feinstein, Sen Boxer and Rep. Huffman for quite some time, said that he and the county will continue to rail against a new casino anywhere in Sonoma County.

“We appreciate the tribe's stated effort to move away from gaming at this site,” said Rabbitt. “If we have a signed commitment in perpetuity that the tribe won't pursue gaming, then we can be great partners.”

Huffman said that he would support any efforts to block a casino at the site. Sen. Feinstein's and Sen. Boxer's offices did not return requests for comment.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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