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Decision on casinos could set precedent

Highway 101 at Kastania Road looking across at land owned by the Dry Creek Rancheria band of Pomo Indians.

Scott Manchester/For The Argus-Courier
Published: Friday, August 10, 2012 at 3:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 10, 2012 at 3:20 p.m.

As the state awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's decision on the fate of two off-reservation casino applications, local officials acknowledge the ruling could open up the possibility for a casino on land south of Petaluma owned by the Dry Creek Rancheria band of Pomo Indians.

Brown is scheduled to deliver his decision on off-reservation proposals from the Enterprise Rancheria near Marysville and the North Fork Rancheria near Fresno by Aug. 31. These two particular casinos are up for governor review because the tribes are attempting to build casinos on newly acquired land not currently recognized as part of their reservations. The federal government has approved their off-reservation applications, leaving the final decision in Brown's hands.

Off-reservation casinos are a growing trend among Indian tribes seeking to locate casinos closer to more densely populated areas. Where casinos used to be relegated to rural, tribal lands tucked away from urban areas, Indian tribes have recently begun purchasing additional land and putting it into trust with the federal government as areas that were historically occupied by their tribes.

Rohnert Park's recently approved gaming compact by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria is an example of a tribe attempting to build an off-reservation casino, which required a green light from both the Secretary of the Interior and the governor.

“What we have going on right now is a gaming arms race,” said Cheryl Schmidt, director of the casino watchdog group Stand Up for California. “While the state has been waiting this past year for the governor's decision, we've seen a number of tribes positioning themselves for off-reservation gaming. Any city that has a tribe that owns land in their area needs to be keeping an eye on this, including Petaluma.”

Schmidt's comments refer to the 277-acre parcel just south of town, at the Highway 101 Kastania Road interchange, that is owned by the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians. The tribe, which currently operates the River Rock Casino on its tribal land in Geyserville, has a Memorandum of Understanding with the county agreeing not to develop the land for gaming through 2016.

But the approval of the off-reservation Rohnert Park casino has left some worried that a Dry Creek Band casino near Petaluma could be next, should the governor's decision set a precedent. Numerous calls to Dry Creek Band Chairman Harvey Hopkins for comment were not returned.

Councilmember Mike Healy is currently involved in a lawsuit challenging the governor's Rohnert Park gaming compact decision and initiated an advisory vote in 2006 in which nearly 80 percent of local voters opposed a casino near Petaluma, said that whatever decision the governor makes should not deter Petaluma from trying to work with the Dry Creek tribe on how the land should be used.

“The trick for the city of Petaluma is to reach out to the Dry Creek tribe to see what we can do to incentivize them to not build a casino.” Healy said. “If they worked with us and avoided gaming on that property, the city could possibly consider offering them water and sewer on the property or something of that nature.”

Talks between the city and tribe to offer water and sewer to the tribe on the land in exchange for a no-gaming contract fell apart in 2008 and right now, the city's only current protection against a casino on the property is the county MOU expiring in 2016.

Healy added that with work about to start on a revamped Petaluma Boulevard South interchange, access to the Dry Creek Band's property will improve greatly. Between improved access and the possibility of the future Rohnert Park casino pulling revenue away from the Dry Creek's River Rock casino, making a second casino more attractive to the tribe, Schmidt said that Petaluma should pay careful attention to the governor's coming decision.

“We see tribes with casinos in rural locations, who have always played by the rules — like Dry Creek and their River Rock Casino — who are watching tribal casinos move to urban areas,” Schmidt said. “What's going to happen to the casinos that have already been built? Not only is it unfair to the tribes playing by the rules, but it opens the door to casino bankruptcy and serious financial issues.”

Schmidt added that if off-reservation gaming compacts become the norm, tribes that have always kept gaming in on tribal land will be forced to join the trend in order to compete.

Petaluma's County Supervisor David Rabbitt said that he will be monitoring the governor's decision as well and acknowledged that it could set a precedent he doesn't want to see.

“The county has always been opposed to off-reservation gaming in this area,” Rabbitt said. “Whatever he decides, the county supervisors hope that the governor will at least be consistent with his latest format with the Graton tribe and give back to the communities impacted by these casinos.”

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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