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County likely to set public meeting on Rohnert Park casino; critics file lawsuit


Sonoma County supervisors today will consider giving the public a chance to weigh in on the impacts of an Indian casino next to Rohnert Park that is in the final approval stages.

In an effort to thwart the project, casino opponents on Monday revived a previously rejected lawsuit that says the property where the 3,000-slot machine casino is to be built is not sovereign territory and is subject to state laws that prohibit gambling.

"This has not been Indian land since California came into the union; it's always been subject to California law," said Petaluma Councilman Mike Healy who wrote the legal argument.

The attorney for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria said the suit was ill-founded.

"The arguments in this lawsuit ignore basic constitutional principles of federal Indian law and have been soundly rejected by the courts," attorney John Maier said in an email.

"Like the others, this lawsuit will be addressed in accordance with the law, leaving no doubt that the tribe's compact with the state complies fully with all aspects of state and federal law," he said.

The casino, to be built south of Home Depot and projected to cost more than $700 million, including land purchases, has been in the works for nine years.

Gov. Jerry Brown in March signed an agreement, or compact, that would allow the tribe to start work. The Legislature ratified it this month. Now, the federal Interior Department has 45 days to approve or reject the compact or allow it to take effect automatically.

If the project gets the go-ahead, as expected, the county and tribe are to negotiate how the tribe will financially address a broad range of the casino's impacts, from environmental to social.

A county-tribe deal to negotiate those terms was reached in 2004, and although it does not require additional public comment, supervisors value it, said Lori Norton, Sonoma County deputy administrator.

"We want to make sure that if there's any impact we're not aware of, we give the public an opportunity to identify that impact so we can consider appropriate mitigations," said Norton, who will be part of the negotiating team.

The county Board of Supervisors today is expected to approve a public meeting on the casino's impacts for June 12. Norton said the meeting would be informational only.

But it is likely to draw additional attention to the casino controversy.

The opposition lawsuit by Stop the Casino 101 was filed Monday in Sonoma County Superior Court and names Brown as the sole defendant.

It makes largely the same point as a suit rejected in 2009 — and again in appeals court in 2010 — and asks the court to halt the compact between the tribe and the governor.

The suit contends the 254-acre property was taken into trust for the tribe by the federal government only so that a casino could be built on it. That act alone did not remove the land from state jurisdiction because "the state did not cede its authority."

The suit also says it "effectively seeks to restore the original intent of the 2000 state ballot initiative that authorized gambling on Indian lands."

That measure, Proposition 1A adopted by voters, made it clear that it "would not allow reservation shopping and that casinos would only be on traditionally Indian lands in remote areas," Healy said.

The tribe bought the property for $100 million in 2005. Federal authorities took it into trust in 2010, which made it a reservation exempt from most local and state regulations.

An Indian law expert said court decisions already have dealt with, in the tribe's favor, the arguments made in the suit.

"Bottom line is they're going to lose," said Santa Rosa attorney Anthony Cohen.

He said rulings involving Indian land have said that unless the federal government has removed every bit of state control over the land, the suit's argument about sovereignty does not apply.

In the case of the Graton Rancheria property, it is still subject to state criminal and alcoholic beverage control laws, Cohen said.

Also, he said, court cases have found that individuals cannot enforce the rights of the state.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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