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A small fleet of heavy machinery in a field just south of Rohnert Park's Home Depot served notice Thursday evening that work has started on a 3,000-slot-machine casino resort that a Sonoma County Indian tribe has pursued for nearly a decade.

And in a 4-H hall a mile or so across town, some residents were pleading with county officials to do everything in their power to minimize the casino's impacts on areas ranging from ground water to traffic, noise and crime.

"You are the last public officials that get to weigh in on this thing, and we're depending on you," said Steve Schwartz. His main concern was that two wells the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria plan to drill on their 254-acre reservation will draw down private wells in the area.

He spoke at a town hall meeting called by county Supervisors Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt to gather public comments ahead of negotiations between the county and tribe over how the tribe will address, financially and otherwise, the project's impacts.

A single voice at the meeting, which was attended by about 60 people, said the tribe was being made to jump through hoops.

"The Graton tribe have been good stewards of this land for 200 years," said Dorothy Friberg of Sebastopol, who cited historical injustices committed against American Indians.

"When this community was settled, they just pushed the Indians back to the coast," she said, "If you want to mitigate water, get rid of your lawns."

The tribe and county struck a 2004 deal to hold negotiations about how the tribe will alleviate casino impacts once all other agreements it needs to move forward are in place.

That moment appears to have arrived, with the federal Department of the Interior expected to any day approve a contract between the state and tribe permitting it to run the Las Vegas-style casino it first proposed in 2003.

But with trucks already rolling onto the Wilfred Avenue site, there were neighbors who said the talks, which Rabbitt said are likely to start next week, were too late to help them.

"None of us can sell our houses now — and none of you can mitigate that," said Marilyn Blair, a neighbor of the property who was near tears.

Station Casinos, the Las Vegas company bankrolling the project, posted a letter Thursday on the www.gratoneis.com website that contains environmental reports for the project, saying the tribe "understands the sensitivity regarding the project."

The letter said the casino in the long term will have an "overall positive impact on the community," but "there may be short-term disturbances during construction and longer-term operational impacts that the tribe wants to address in the most responsible manner possible."

During the meeting, Zane said, "There are several things that they are doing already," referring to a section of the letter that lists steps being taken to address ground-water use and well monitoring.

Still, she said, much about the project's impact on ground water is yet to be established — geological studies of the Santa Rosa Plain are due later this year — and there are a raft of other impacts that the county needs to make sure the tribe addresses.

"The whole goal of the board and the county is to mitigate every dollar ... so there is no impact on the general fund," she said.

"We'll do the best that we can, that's my promise to you," she said. "We may not get everything we can, but we'll do the best we can."

County and tribe relations appeared this week to deteriorate ahead of the talks with statements by Graton Rancheria chairman Greg Sarris that supervisors were putting out "misleading" information about the project and fighting the tribe "every step of the way."

He said Wednesday that if the talks go to arbitration, the county will lose its chance to get any more than the minimum available to minimize impacts.

Several speakers Thursday said that was an indication that the tribe would not hold to its end of the bargain it negotiated with the county in 2004.

But one supporter of the casino said the tribe was already meeting its commitment to hire local union labor, a sign that it would keep its word.

"I have full faith that they're going to bargain in good faith," said Chris Snyder, district representative for Operating Engineers Local No. 3.

"Negotiate tough, but also be reasonable, I know it's going to work out," he said.

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