Petaluma casino threat looms

Will Petaluma one day become the meat in a casino sandwich?

With construction underway on a gargantuan casino complex near Rohnert Park, and the threat of another casino looming just south of town, it may very well happen.

In 2006, the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomos, which operates the River Rock Casino near Geyserville, announced plans to take its 277-acre property alongside Highway 101 east of Kastania Road into federal trust in order to develop a second "class III gaming facility." Though the tribe's application to the federal government was later withdrawn, it could easily be resubmitted.

With the competing Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria having begun construction on its Rohnert Park casino, it will not be long before the number of visitors to the River Rock casino will dwindle, and profits will plunge. Given that the casino located closest to the lucrative Bay Area gambling market is likely to earn the biggest revenues and profits, what's to stop the Dry Creek Band from leap-frogging down the highway and following up on their original plan to build a casino here in Petaluma?

This is a classic case of what has come to be known as "reservation shopping," a shameful practice whereby competing tribes purchase private property well beyond their own ancestral boundaries in order to develop more profitable gambling enterprises. Though still legal, it vividly demonstrates how weak laws, money and political influence have overwhelmed and ultimately begun to ruin local communities throughout California.

The result of a large casino complex on Petaluma's southern flank is easy to predict: massive traffic jams and increased accidents along highway 101; increased crime and pollution; severe water shortages in an already water-scarce region; wastewater disposal problems impacting the nearby Petaluma River; lowered housing availability, particularly for lower income families; and impaired fire protection and law enforcement services.

According to Cheryl Schmidt, director of Stand up for California, a state watchdog group on Indian gaming, the Dry Creek casino project could move ahead depending on how Gov. Jerry Brown proceeds with two off-reservation gaming applications currently under review.

His decision in those cases, expected later this month, could set a precedent for sites like the Dry Creek Band's Petaluma property, which is also not on a reservation. Schmidt, who likens the competing tribes' actions to a "gaming arms race," says if the governor approves the other tribes' applications, a casino in Petaluma "would become a very real possibility."

But it's not a project Petaluma wants. Shortly after the Dry Creek Indian tribe announced their Petaluma casino development plans, nearly 80 percent of local voters went to the polls in 2006 and clearly said "no" to a casino. But the vote was only advisory in nature, and is unlikely to do much to stop the tribe from building a casino.

In 2008, the County Board of Supervisors signed a conciliatory agreement stipulating that no casino would be built on the tribe's Petaluma property for eight years in exchange for dedicating a portion of the land as open space. The tribe later said it would permanently abandon all plans for a casino in Petaluma if the city would just provide water and sewer hook-ups for an alternative commercial project on the site, such as a baseball stadium, hotel, golf course or service station.

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