Officials ponder casino threat

News that the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians is scheduled to have its parcel of land south of town taken into federal trust early next year has prompted some local officials to suggest asking Petaluma voters to extend water and sewer services to the property in the hopes of deterring a future casino from being built there.

The Dry Creek Tribe, which already owns and operates the River Rock Casino in Geyserville, applied in 2005 to move the 277-acre property on Highway 101 at Kastania Road into federal trust "in order to establish a class three gaming facility." Doing so is a prerequisite to opening a casino on tribal land. The rural property does not currently have a sewer or water connection, which would most likely be needed to operate a business there, so the idea is that the tribe might consider agreeing to a non-casino use for the land if offered those services.

"It may be beneficial to the city to provide services, depending on the deal they can make," said County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who has been involved in talks with Dry Creek Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins.

The tribe first offered to drop its application for gaming rights in 2008 in exchange for water and sewer service, but at that time the council was not interested in exploring the option.

The tribe currently has a "memorandum of understanding" with the county agreeing not to pursue gaming on the property until 2016. However, that MOU will likely have expired by the time the land has been taken into trust and the tribe has cleared all the necessary regulatory hurtles with the State of California for a casino operation.

Mayor David Glass, who has spoken with Hopkins at length about alternative uses for the land, said last week that Hopkins has expressed a desire to use the land for something other than gaming if the city would agree to extend water and sewer services to that property. But according to Glass, offering utilities to the tribe would require voter approval to extend the city's "urban growth boundary" to include that property — something the voters would normally be unlikely to do, but might seriously consider if it would negate a large casino on the land.

"Harvey (Hopkins) said the tribe wants to pursue an economic development that helps the tribe, that isn't a casino," said Glass. "I think he understands that any proposal given to the voters would have to be attractive to get them to sign off on extending the urban growth boundary."

Rabbitt has also spoken with Hopkins about avoiding a casino. "I've met with the chairman a number of times and he's been open about their plans," he said, adding that Hopkins has shown him documents describing proposed uses such as sports fields, recreational areas, residences for tribal members, with some industrial and commercial uses as well.

Rabbitt said that he considers the potential for gaming south of town much lower than on some other properties. He pointed out that gaming on the Petaluma property would require a second, off-reservation application for the tribe. It's an application that Rabbitt doesn't view as likely to be approved, even though several other off-reservation gaming sites have recently been approved by Gov. Jerry Brown, including the Rohnert Park casino project that is currently being built.

"With a tribe's first casino, it's almost always approved," said Rabbitt. "But a second, off-reservation casino is usually much more difficult to get green lit, and usually requires county backing, which Dry Creek will not have."

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