Decision on casinos could set precedent

As the state awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's decision on the fate of two off-reservation casino applications, local officials acknowledge the ruling could open up the possibility for a casino on land south of Petaluma owned by the Dry Creek Rancheria band of Pomo Indians.

Brown is scheduled to deliver his decision on off-reservation proposals from the Enterprise Rancheria near Marysville and the North Fork Rancheria near Fresno by Aug. 31. These two particular casinos are up for governor review because the tribes are attempting to build casinos on newly acquired land not currently recognized as part of their reservations. The federal government has approved their off-reservation applications, leaving the final decision in Brown's hands.

Off-reservation casinos are a growing trend among Indian tribes seeking to locate casinos closer to more densely populated areas. Where casinos used to be relegated to rural, tribal lands tucked away from urban areas, Indian tribes have recently begun purchasing additional land and putting it into trust with the federal government as areas that were historically occupied by their tribes.

Rohnert Park's recently approved gaming compact by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria is an example of a tribe attempting to build an off-reservation casino, which required a green light from both the Secretary of the Interior and the governor.

"What we have going on right now is a gaming arms race," said Cheryl Schmidt, director of the casino watchdog group Stand Up for California. "While the state has been waiting this past year for the governor's decision, we've seen a number of tribes positioning themselves for off-reservation gaming. Any city that has a tribe that owns land in their area needs to be keeping an eye on this, including Petaluma."

Schmidt's comments refer to the 277-acre parcel just south of town, at the Highway 101 Kastania Road interchange, that is owned by the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians. The tribe, which currently operates the River Rock Casino on its tribal land in Geyserville, has a Memorandum of Understanding with the county agreeing not to develop the land for gaming through 2016.

But the approval of the off-reservation Rohnert Park casino has left some worried that a Dry Creek Band casino near Petaluma could be next, should the governor's decision set a precedent. Numerous calls to Dry Creek Band Chairman Harvey Hopkins for comment were not returned.

Councilmember Mike Healy is currently involved in a lawsuit challenging the governor's Rohnert Park gaming compact decision and initiated an advisory vote in 2006 in which nearly 80 percent of local voters opposed a casino near Petaluma, said that whatever decision the governor makes should not deter Petaluma from trying to work with the Dry Creek tribe on how the land should be used.

"The trick for the city of Petaluma is to reach out to the Dry Creek tribe to see what we can do to incentivize them to not build a casino." Healy said. "If they worked with us and avoided gaming on that property, the city could possibly consider offering them water and sewer on the property or something of that nature."

Talks between the city and tribe to offer water and sewer to the tribe on the land in exchange for a no-gaming contract fell apart in 2008 and right now, the city's only current protection against a casino on the property is the county MOU expiring in 2016.

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