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Officials ponder casino threat

The piece of land on this stretch of Highway 101 near Kastania Road is where an Indian casino could be built.

JOHN O'HARA, FOR THE ARGUS-COURIER
Published: Thursday, December 27, 2012 at 2:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 27, 2012 at 2:27 p.m.

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.”

The recently approved Rohnert Park casino, which most think has the potential to siphon about 40 percent of revenues away from the Dry Creek tribe's River Rock Casino near Geyserville, was an off-reservation casino project. It did not have county backing, but was approved by Brown.

Cheryl Schmit, director of the gambling watchdog group, Stand Up California, disagrees with Rabbitt, predicting that Brown's ruling will be favorable to tribes like the Dry Creek Rancheria seeking to build casinos off the reservations.

“It seems like he's opened the door,” she said, to tribes “leapfrogging over other tribes who played by the rules.” She fully expects those other tribes to push back.

Rabbitt, however, says that unlike other applications, the federal trust application for the Kastania Road property is not limited to gaming. “It specifies multiple uses, unlike the Rohnert Park casino application, which was gaming specific,” he said. “That, coupled with it being a second casino, makes gaming on that land much less likely, but certainly not impossible.”

Rabbitt said that the county will continue to monitor the threat of gaming but said he remains hopeful there are other uses for the land that the tribe will be open to. “From the county's perspective, it's all about keeping communication open and having a good relationship with the tribe,” he said.

While a 2006 advisory ballot measure initiated by Councilmember Mike Healy showed that 80 percent of Petaluma voters did not want a casino on the Kastania Road property, extending the urban growth boundary to avoid a casino could get tricky. Councilmember Teresa Barrett, for instance, said that she is not in favor of extending the urban growth boundary for any reason.

“I think that any use of our utilities that hasn't been outlined in the General Plan would really have to be seriously discussed at the community level,” she said. “The voters of Petaluma have overwhelmingly voted for the boundaries and I can't see them changing their mind without good reason.”

Hopkins did not return calls for comment.

(Jay Gamel contributed to this story. Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@argus courier.com.)

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