Graton tribe concerned over casino possibility

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."

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