Distrust brewing over tribe's land

Despite repeated promises from the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians not to build a casino on 277-acres of land south of the city, many Petalumans remain worried that a recent federal land application from the tribe may be a hidden attempt at Indian gaming.

Known as "fee-to-trust," the land acquisition process enables the federal government to take property out of state and local control, and hold it in trust for a group or entity, such as the Dry Creek tribe. That group or entity then enjoys sovereign control over the land, making it impossible for local jurisdictions to have any say over what is built on the land, or to collect property and/or sales tax from businesses located there.

Petaluma and the county not only face losing control over the land if it is taken into federal trust, but they are also kept out of the loop during most of the opaque, bureaucratic fee-to-trust application process that leaves local jurisdictions with limited options to oppose any decisions.

"I think a lot of people don't trust Indian tribes," Dry Creek Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins said in his first interview with the Argus-Courier since 2009. "I feel like it stems from a lack of understanding about our ways. But we're a regular government and fee-to-trust is just one of our regular government protocols."

Putting land into federal trust was made legal by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA). The act allowed Indian tribes to expand their limited reservations by requesting that additional property be placed into federal trust for their use.

While the IRA's original goal was to support struggling Indian tribes by expanding their land base, the fee-to-trust process has since drawn strong opposition from the affected communities that must deal with a loss of tax revenue and regulatory control over the land. More than that, the fear of Indian gaming on property taken into federal trust fuels criticism of the process, as is the case with the Dry Creek tribe's Petaluma property.

Historically, most Indian reservations were located in tucked-away, rural corners, far from urban life — much like Dry Creek's Rancheria, a sweeping 93-acre stretch of land located just outside Geyserville's city limits. In these remote locations, Indian gaming casinos have flourished.

Dry Creek has successfully run the River Rock Casino on its Geyerville reservation since 2002. Though nothing close to the size of the Graton Resort & Casino that recently opened Rohnert Park, River Rock has consistently been profitable, generating about $600 a month of extra income for each of the tribe's adult members.

But recently, a new phenomenon known as "casino leapfrogging" has emerged. By getting the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) — the agency that handles fee-to-trust applications — to take additional lands into trust, tribes have been able to build casinos closer to urban areas, luring customers away from the remote locations into more convenient ones.

This new method, coupled with the veil of secrecy that surrounds the application process, has Petaluma's City Council and county representatives afraid that Dry Creek will try this tactic at its Petaluma property.

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