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Community Matters: Casino threat lingers in Petaluma

“I’m a little bit gobsmacked that something this big and this controversial would just be dropped like this.”

--Congressman Jared Huffman, remarking on the Koi Nation’s announced plans to build a large casino near Windsor

When 80% of Petaluma voters went to the polls in 2006 to express their strong opposition to a Las Vegas style gambling casino planned for property immediately south of town, they hoped to prevent the spread of tribal gaming operations from reaching their town. But the advisory vote had only a negligible effect on the opaque decision-making process in Washington, D.C., where such casinos are quietly given birth.

The reality is that a massive gambling complex on the city’s southern gateway is still a very real possibility, threatening significant impacts on traffic, public safety, water supply, housing availability and the environment.

If you don’t think so, ask anyone living in Rohnert Park who, despite years of fierce public resistance, have lived alongside the Bay Area’s largest tribal gaming operation which the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria opened in 2013.

Or ask anyone living in Windsor where the Koi Nation, another federally recognized tribe, recently announced plans to turn a 68-acre vineyard near that community into a huge $600 million casino complex. Despite widespread public opposition, another casino could be operating there in just four years pending necessary federal and state approvals.

Further north, near Geyserville, the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians operates the River Rock Casino. In 2005, when that Dry Creek Band learned about a competing tribe’s plans to open a large gaming complex in Rohnert Park (and dreading the certain drop in visitors and revenues that would ensue) it purchased 277 acres alongside Highway 101 just south of Petaluma with plans to build another casino there. Given that the gaming operation located closest to the lucrative Bay Area gambling market is likely to earn the biggest revenues and profits, it was logical for the Dry Creek Band to want leap-frog down the highway.

The U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs could one day approve an application by the Dry Creek Band to take the Petaluma property into federal trust. And once that happens, local control over what may be built on the site disappears and all land use decision-making becomes the sole prerogative of the tribe.

That’s according to Supervisor David Rabbitt of Petaluma who has become one of the state’s more knowledgeable local government officials on Indian gaming matters. Rabbitt got a crash course on the subject immediately following his election in 2010 when the Graton tribe was finalizing plans to build its casino in his south county supervisorial district and Rabbitt was suddenly thrust into the role of lead negotiator for the County of Sonoma.

California, Rabbitt concedes, has become a magnet for competing tribal casinos and there is not much that local governments can do to stop that trend.

“I’m not a fan of casinos,” Rabbitt said, “but at the end of the day, they (federally recognized Indian tribes) are sovereign nations and can determine what they want to do with their land.”

Despite such hurdles, Rabbitt says the county has been relatively successful in exerting some leverage on the Dry Creek tribe over the years on issues such as wastewater disposal, road maintenance, fire protection services and the allowance of alcohol sales. Tribes typically agree to share gaming revenues in exchange for certain public services, such as law enforcement, so in 2008 the County Board of Supervisors signed a complex agreement with the Dry Creek tribe stipulating that no casino would be built on its Petaluma property for eight years in exchange for some financial concessions. The agreement has been modified multiple times over the years, most recently last spring when the severe fiscal impacts from the competing Graton Casino coupled with the pandemic compelled the cash-strapped tribe to forgo establishment of a Petaluma casino until at least 2032.

But the clock is still ticking and the best way to prevent a casino from landing on the city’s doorstep, according to Rabbitt, is for all local government officials, including those representing Petaluma, to keep the lines of communication open with tribal leaders and be willing to explore alternative types of development for the property that will help tribal members meet their economic goals.

Several years ago, the Dry Creek tribe offered to permanently abandon all plans for a casino in Petaluma if the city would provide water and sewer connections for an alternative commercial project on the site which may have included a hotel, restaurant, campground, golf course or service station.

But Petaluma officials at the time were not eager to relinquish some of the city’s increasingly precious water supply and limited sewer capacity to enable a commercial development under which it had little control.

Such a strategy, however, could prove quite useful in stopping a casino, according to veteran Petaluma City Councilman Mike Healy who has long advocated for the city to collaborate on a mutually agreeable non-gaming use of the property.

Rabbitt agrees. “I encourage the City of Petaluma to have an open mind and recognize that the tribe has the right to better their lives and economic future,” he said. “Having a relationship with the tribe is very important; without a relationship, it’s an uphill battle.”

Indigenous people in America have suffered grievously during the last few hundred years and current federal policy offers token redress by allowing tribes to derive some measure of economic benefit by establishing casinos or other commercial endeavors on lands they are able to acquire.

None of this, however, can compensate for the dreadfully unjust treatment they have endured for generations.

Striking a balance between tribal needs and the communities into which they plan to operate their new businesses is an ongoing challenge for which all local elected officials must continue to work creatively and collaboratively.

John Burns is a former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com.

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