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Casino threats surround Petaluma

Now that the state legislature has moved with remarkable alacrity to approve a gaming compact enabling construction of an unwanted mega-casino in Rohneart Park, Petaluma residents can only speculate on how soon it will be before the already burdened two-lane highway through town becomes even more severely clogged with weekend traffic.

The legislature's action guarantees the highway will be choked with tens of thousands of additional car trips each week from Bay Area gamblers headed to the 254-acre gambling mecca that is the dream of Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris and his partners at Station Casinos of Las Vegas.

Current plans call for constructing one of the very largest casino complexes in the entire state, housing a whopping 3,000 slot machines, a 200 room hotel, and 5,500 parking spaces. In addition to massive traffic jams, the casino would significantly worsen Petaluma's shortage of affordable housing; suck up to a quarter million gallons of water daily from already strained underground aquifers; significantly increase crime and air pollution; and heighten demand for mutual aid from Petaluma's short-staffed fire and police departments.

Much blame for the legislature's approval of the casino goes to Petaluma's State Senator, Mark Leno, who introduced the enabling legislation in the Senate. Although Leno is acutely aware of how much residents here do not want to have this development forced upon them, and clearly understands the monumental environmental damage that can never be undone, he worked diligently behind the scenes to betray his constituency in favor of lavish campaign donations from Indian and casino gaming interests.

Leno defended his actions by saying that the Graton Rancheria gaming compact is different in that it requires that the tribe work with local governments to reach agreements on sharing revenue to address the casino's impacts. But the two relevant local governmental entities are the City of Rohnert Park and the County of Sonoma, not the City of Petaluma. While Rohnert Park and the county can negotiate to receive a small share of the development's estimated $400 million in annual revenues to help mitigate some of the casino's impacts — which include increased crime, traffic, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and degraded local water supplies — Petaluma gets nothing to help address such problems.

Any hope for securing funding to cover Petaluma's costs of the future casino development rests with the County Board of Supervisors, which is expected to negotiate with the tribe once the project wins final approval by the federal Department of the Interior. We hope Petaluma officials will work closely with South County Supervisor David Rabbitt to ensure that the negotiations result in some financial relief for the city.

Meanwhile, a recent story by Argus-Courier reporter Janelle Wetzstein shows that Petalumans have good reason to be concerned about another casino threat much closer to home.

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 near Kastania Road into federal trust in order to develop "a class III gaming facility."

Cheryl Schmidt, director of Stand up for California, a state watchdog group on Indian gaming, said 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 year, could set a precedent for sites like the Dry Creek Band's Petaluma property, which is also not on a reservation. Schmidt says if the governor approves these two sites, a casino in Petaluma "would become a very real possibility."

Shortly after the Dry Creek Indian tribe announced their Petaluma casino development plans, 80 percent of Petaluma voters went to the polls in 2006 and said no to a casino on the site. But the vote was only advisory in nature. In 2008, the County Board of Supervisors signed a dubious agreement with the tribe stipulating that no casino would be built on the property for eight years in exchange for dedicating a portion of the land as open space.


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