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Dry Creek Pomo seek hotel for Petaluma land

Harvey Hopkins.

PD File
Published: Monday, October 21, 2013 at 7:12 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 21, 2013 at 7:12 a.m.

The Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo is adding a 60-room hotel to its plan for land south of Petaluma as the tribe's leader continues to insist there are no plans for a casino.

Chairman Harvey Hopkins said the hotel would accommodate spectators and players for the half-dozen sports fields that are planned along with the tribal housing, restaurant, gas station, medical clinic and fire station.

In a lengthy interview, Hopkins said the tribe's existing River Rock Casino near Geyserville continues to be the priority, especially ensuring its viability with the competition it will get from Graton Rancheria's huge casino opening next month at Rohnert Park.

“We have a casino that we need to further develop and it's definitely number one on our radar. There is no projection at this time to build another casino in Petaluma — only to develop River Rock,” he said.

But Dry Creek's proposal to place into federal trust the 277 acres it owns off Kastania Road has made Petaluma and Sonoma County officials uneasy that the tribe might one day build a casino there as a way to leapfrog closer to the lucrative Bay Area market.

That would put a potential casino closer to the main population centers than the massive, 3,000-slot gambling palace opening Nov. 5.

Graton Rancheria Chairman Greg Sarris is among those skeptical of Dry Creek's motives. Previously he accused the Pomo band of being “totally out of their territory,” essentially interlopers on aboriginal Coast Miwok lands.

“I am against tribes taking land into trust in another tribe's territory for any reason,” he said in a statement Thursday. “There is no reason Dry Creek Rancheria or any other tribe needs to put the land into trust if they are going to have a baseball field or whatever else they plan, besides a casino.

“They can build a baseball field, a gas station, or houses like any other citizen on that land without putting it into trust,” Sarris said.

But Hopkins said it is easier and less expensive to fulfill his tribe's development plans for the Petaluma property if it is made Indian land, not subject to county zoning and land use regulations, which designate most of it for agriculture.

“It's dealing with the county and the costs,” he said. “I can't imagine what the fees would be for 40 houses.”

Hopkins acknowledges that the Rohnert Park casino likely will significantly reduce River Rock revenues. The hillside casino has enjoyed a monopoly on Indian gaming in Sonoma County for 11 years.

“It could be a 25 or 30 percent loss of revenue,” he said.

While River Rock recently launched a counter-offensive of sorts, advertising looser slots and no ATM fees at its casino, Hopkins noted “it's hard to market a casino when another is coming on that's so grand.”

Hopkins is hoping River Rock will rebound after the novelty of the Rohnert Park casino wears off.

Yet the prime location of the Dry Creek's Petaluma land off Highway 101 and the fact the tribe in 2005 applied to have it taken into trust for gaming purposes — before “suspending” the application — fuels the belief that it still wants a casino there.

Since then the tribe has notified the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its intent to pursue a non-gaming project, according to Hopkins.

BIA officials did not return calls from The Press Democrat.

The Petaluma City Council in August drafted a letter to Congressional representatives asking them to oppose the trust application, saying “we are mindful that tribal promises not to pursue gaming are not enforceable.”

The letter cited the Graton Rancheria Chairman Sarris' comment to Congress in 1999 that his tribe had no interest in operating a casino, but “that casino is now under construction 10 miles to the north of us.”

Petaluma Councilman Mike Healy said once the new Highway 101 interchange south of town is completed, vehicles “will have fabulous access” to the Kastania property for a potential casino there.

He said he was alarmed about the large “future development” site that was depicted on Dry Creek's recent drawings for its project south of Petaluma.

Healy said there were other “oddities,” including a proposed fire station that doesn't seem to make sense in light of the existing San Antonio fire station about a quarter-mile from the property.

Hopkins last week emphasized that the tribe still plans to build a permanent casino and hotel at River Rock, a project that was shelved when the economy soured.

He gave a number of reasons the tribe has no interest in a casino south of Petaluma: it would be too expensive, financing would be “quite difficult” and it likely would take at least 8 to 10 years to get approval from federal and state officials.

“I'm not planning something secret. If I wanted to do a casino down there I would say 'build a casino.' It's not in the cards,” he asserted.

Instead, he said, the tribe's priority is to build housing there for its members. There also would be a potentially highly lucrative wetlands project to sell credits to developers and offset the loss of habitat for their projects.

The sports fields, he said, would be for baseball, softball, soccer and perhaps lacrosse.

Hopkins said he took the hotel out of the early plans because he heard complaints that it would hurt the local lodging industry. But when people saw it as a blank area for future development, he said they “were up in arms about a casino.”

So, to “put them at ease,” he said, he put the hotel back in.

The tribe wants to obtain water and sewer service from Petaluma for its project, “if not we will provide our own wells and wastewater treatment plant,” Hopkins said.

Getting utilities from Petaluma will be tricky since it most likely would require voter approval to extend sewer and water beyond the city's urban growth boundary.

Hopkins said the tribe has been willing to stipulate to no casino in exchange for utility service.

Under the agreement Dry Creek signed with Sonoma County in 2008, it agreed not to pursue a casino on its Petaluma property until at least 2016.

And in the agreement, he noted that the tribe agreed never to conduct gambling on the Petaluma property if sewer and water utilities become available by 2016.

(Contact Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.)

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