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Petaluma wants a say in county casino negotiations

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Petaluma is seeking influence over an agreement between Sonoma County and an Indian tribe that could gird against a potential Las Vegas-style casino in the area. But there is little indication Petaluma’s gambit will succeed, as county officials say they are already interested in bolstering protections against gaming and don’t need the city’s involvement.

The deal involves the complex years-long negotiations over 500 acres of land near Windsor that the Lytton Rancheria is seeking as a reservation. A bill in Congress that would take the land into federal trust would prohibit gaming on the land, which the tribe says it will use for housing and a winery.

The bill also bans gaming on any other future land the tribe acquires in Sonoma County north of Highway 12, and prohibits gaming on tribal land south of Highway 12 for 20 years. That caveat was problematic for Petaluma officials, who worry that the open space around the city could be targeted for a casino after the 20 year prohibition expires.

A different tribe, the Dry Creek Rancheria, which owns the River Rock Casino in Geyserville, also owns 277 acres south of Petaluma off Kastania Road. The tribe has said it has no plans for a casino on that land and has not sought to take the land into federal trust, a key requirement to getting a casino.

Negotiators say it is likely too late to amend the Lytton bill to include a complete prohibition on gaming in Sonoma County. The bill has already passed the House and is working through committees in the Senate.

The county is negotiating a separate agreement with the Lytton tribe, and has included a permanent ban on gaming in Sonoma County. But, unlike laws passed by Congress, agreements can be renegotiated, and Petaluma wants to insert its influence over the process.

“The good news is that the tribe has agreed that any lands taken into trust would permanently be gaming ineligible,” said Councilman Mike Healy, who has been involved in the effort to fight Indian casinos in Sonoma County. “Our preferred way of memorializing that is to amend the bill. Because of the dysfunction in Congress, that doesn’t seem to be practical. So we’d like to amend the MOA (memorandum of agreement).”

Petaluma wants to insert language into the MOA between the county and tribe that would give the city third party beneficiary status and require the city’s approval to amend the section banning gaming. Healy said that, in 20 years when the prohibition on gaming expires, future county supervisors could change the agreement to open up land near Petaluma for casino development without the city having a say.

“This is a tribe that can write eye-popping checks,” he said. “More money 20 years from now, would that make the county jump? Who knows?”

Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the Petaluma area on the Board of Supervisors, said the county is disinclined to cede authority to the city. He said the county’s aim has always been to prevent casino development, which the current pact does. Adding the city as a party to the agreement is unnecessary and would complicate the negotiating process with a tribe that is considered a sovereign government, he said.

“Why wouldn’t (Petaluma) trust the county to look out for their interests?” he said. “Their interests are our interests. I don’t get it. The agreement with the Lytton tribe is a good agreement. What’s not to like about that?”

Rabbitt said he would also prefer to include the permanent ban on gaming in the bill, but said that the agreement is the next best option to ban gaming.

“There’s no reason this agreement needs to have any third party,” he said. “I’ve always represented Petaluma’s interests.”

City and county officials are set to talk about the MOA Thursday, Aug. 2. City Attorney Eric Danly pointed out that Petaluma has long been opposed to casino development since 2000, when California voters allowed Indian gaming. In 2006, the city passed an advisory measure with 80 percent of voters saying they were opposed to a casino near Petaluma.

The concept of so-called “reservation shopping” became controversial in Sonoma County after River Rock became the first Indian casino in the county in 2002. Graton Resort and Casino opened in Rohnert Park in 2012, greatly undercutting River Rock’s profits. Critics worried that a tribe would attempt to open a casino near Petaluma in an attempt to leapfrog Graton and capitalize on the lucrative Bay Area customer base.

Danly said that if the county allowed Petaluma to be a party to the agreement with the Lytton tribe, it would demonstrate the county’s commitment to banning gaming.

“If they agree to this change, it would certainly show they mean it,” he said. “It would generate good will and show good faith if they were amenable.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)