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Dry Creek Rancheria tribe files cannabis application with Sonoma County

The tribal government that agreed this past spring to delay its pursuit of a casino in south Petaluma has found another use for a portion of its land: cannabis.

The Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians has filed an application with Sonoma County to grow nearly 1,000 cannabis plants outdoors along the southernmost stretch of Petaluma Boulevard South, at the southeast corner of Highway 101 and Kastania Road.

The proposed operation, which would include large water storage tanks and involve dozens of employee trips per day, would be isolated to a 29-acre portion of the tribe’s 277 acres between Highway 101 and the Petaluma River.

The project still must be approved by county planners, but it has drawn positive remarks from area leaders who have long sought to limit casino activity in Sonoma County. Petaluma City Councilmember Mike Healy said he has some questions about the well that the tribe plans to use as a water source, but otherwise had few complaints.

“Bigger picture, though, this would allow the tribe to get some economic return on its property without a casino,” said Healy, the council’s senior incumbent.

Phone messages left at tribal headquarters, and with a contact listed on the tribe’s application, were not returned.

State and local cannabis regulations, as well as federal law, which prohibits marijuana cultivation, likely will not clash with issues of tribal sovereignty in this instance.

The tribe owns the land, but it has not been officially taken into trust as tribal, sovereign land. That means the same laws apply to the tribe's property south of Petaluma as any other parcel in unincorporated Sonoma County.

The tribe’s application, filed in early August, came three months after leaders agreed to extend an accord with the county that ensures no casino will be built on the property before Dec. 31, 2032.

In exchange, the tribe, cash-strapped after closing its River Rock Casino in Geyserville for 2½ months at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, was able to waive its $750,000 annual payments to the county last year and this year.

Still, the tribe has the right to establish a second casino in the county, according to a separate agreement with the state of California. The possibility that it would choose to build it in Petaluma has loomed ever larger since the Graton Resort & Casino opened in 2013, cutting off Bay Area traffic that might otherwise have continued north to the tribe’s River Rock Casino.

In September, the Koi Nation announced its intention to build a $600 million casino in Windsor, a move likely to cut further into gaming revenue at the tribe’s Geyserville facility.

The Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians’ intention to turn nearly 300 acres on the south side of Petaluma into a resort and casino has long been a source of contention. The city was so motivated to oppose the development that it put the question to voters in 2006. About 80% objected to the idea.

How much pushback this new cannabis proposal will attract is not yet clear, although Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said this could be a rare plot of land free of the kind of neighbor-related concerns that have typified cannabis conflict in Petaluma’s rural outskirts.

Plans for the site include landscape screening and fencing, no storage of chemicals, along with a 100-foot setback from property lines and from Petaluma Boulevard South.

“This setback is far enough from the perimeter fencing so that nothing will be visible from Petaluma Boulevard South,” according to the application, which seeks permission to grow 860 plants at the site.

With plans for pine trees and other plants to mask the smell, and downward-facing, motion-sensing lights for security cameras, the tribe has potentially laid out a belated solution over what to do with the property, which is marked just south of Petaluma by a billboard for the tribe’s existing Sonoma County casino.

“We’ve been working with the tribe, and we understand and support their need to diversify their portfolio,” said Rabbitt, who represents the south county, including Petaluma.

Rabbitt said a number of possibilities for the land have been discussed through the years, including a recreational center, restaurants and bars, a campground, a hotel and even a gas station.

“All were proposed at one point in time,” Rabbitt said. “Ideally, we want everything to be in accordance to our general plan.”

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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