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Casino potential draws scrutiny

The 277-acre property south of town off Highway 101 at Kastania Road owned by the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians.

John O'Hara/For the Argus-Courier
Published: Monday, June 3, 2013 at 9:49 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, June 3, 2013 at 9:49 a.m.

Local officials are not ready to gamble on a 277-acre parcel of land just south of town owned by the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians and pursuing ways to prevent the tribe from building a gaming casino.

In 2005, the Dry Creek Tribe applied to move its Kastania Road property along Highway 101 into federal trust in an attempt to build a class-three gaming facility on the land. Placing land into federal trust gives tribal governments sovereignty over the land and is often considered a precursor to building a gaming casino.

But after 79 percent of Petaluma voters rejected the idea of gaming at that location in 2006 and the application process stalled, the tribe signed an agreement with the county not to pursue gaming on the property until 2016.

Now that the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria's massive Rohnert Park casino project is close to opening and promises to siphon profits away from Dry Creek's River Rock Casino in Geyserville, county representatives have been actively speaking with Gov. Jerry Brown's office about their desire to keep the Kastania Road site, and several other county parcels owned by Indian tribes, casino-free.

David Rabbitt, Petaluma's representative on the board of supervisors, said that he was in Sacramento meeting with the Govenor's office two weeks ago and expressed the county's desire to prevent another casino in Sonoma County.

“We've expressed our opinion across the board that we don't want to see another gaming facility in our county and the governor knows where we stand,” said Rabbitt.

According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs — which handles federal trust applications — the Dry Creek tribe does not have any current applications on file to place the land into federal trust. But Rabbitt said that Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins has told him the tribe's application is close to being completed and submitted to the BIA. Hopkins did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Once finalized, federal trust applications can take anywhere from 18 months to a decade to be approved, depending on the specifics of the application — such as if it includes gaming and if it's a second property for the tribe. While the Argus-Courier previously reported the land could be taken into trust as early as Spring of 2013, it now appears that timeline has changed. It remains unclear as to when the tribe will submit its application to the BIA.

City officials have also been actively seeking ways to entice the Dry Creek Tribe to build something other than a casino on the property. Several months ago, Councilmember Mike Healy proposed acquiring the water and sewer rights from North Marin Water District, and offering the tribe hookups to the rural property — which currently has none — if Dry Creek promised not to build a casino on site.

Mayor David Glass said he has had several conversations with Hopkins and that he trusts the chairman's intentions to develop the land without a casino. “They said they're going to submit a non-gaming application to put the land into trust and I'm hopeful that it can be something that benefits their tribe and that the community as a whole embraces,” he said.

But Glass added that he remains cautious. “The tribe doesn't plan to build a casino there, but I think anybody in my position has to keep it in the back — if not the forefront — of their mind,” he said.

In the past, tribes have submitted applications to place land into federal trust for one purpose, and later done something different with the land — something that Councilmember Mike Healy remains concerned about.

“There's a trust issue,” said Healy. “When the tribe did their original application to put the land into trust back in 2005, they told us it wasn't for gaming. But then we got a look at the application and it was specifically for gaming.”

Rabbitt said that about one month ago, Dry Creek's Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins presented updated site plans to the county, showing a development plan that did not include gaming.

“The tribe's latest plans show six sports recreation fields in the center of the site, parking lots, a gas station and convenience store, a restaurant, an RV park and 31 single family homes meant for tribal members,” said Rabbitt. “There are also two large areas in the plan listed as agricultural or future development uses, but we don't know what they are.”

Rabbitt pointed out that while he is not certain this much development is appropriate for the rural location, the current plans are better than a casino. The tribe's site plans have gone through multiple incarnations over the years. Final plans will most likely depend largely on whether that land is taken into federal trust.

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

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