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Rohnert Park casino: friend or foe to Petaluma?

Published: Friday, October 11, 2013 at 4:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 11, 2013 at 4:39 p.m.

Ongoing efforts to quash the possibility of a tribal gaming casino south of town have Petaluma city officials pondering whether to join a lawsuit against the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria or work with them.

Petaluma — which has long opposed the soon-to-open Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park, run by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria — recently found an unlikely ally in Graton Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris, when he spoke out against efforts by the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians to have a 277-acre parcel of land they own at Kastania Road south of Petaluma taken into federal trust.

Sarris, who does not want to compete with another tribal casino closer to San Francisco along the Highway 101 corridor, called the Dry Creek tribe’s federal trust application a blatant attempt to build a casino and warned Petaluma to be vigilant going forward.

Afterward, city leaders — including Mayor David Glass — reached out to Sarris in an effort to collaborate on stopping the Dry Creek tribe’s federal trust application. So when a recent proposal by a local anti-casino coalition urging the city to join its lawsuit against the Graton Resort & Casino came up at Monday’s City Council meeting, some officials felt conflicted.

“I’ve been working with county counsel, Supervisor David Rabbit and Greg Sarris, much like a recent Petaluma Argus-Courier editorial suggested,” said Glass, referring to a July 29 editorial in the Argus-Courier urging local officials to work with Sarris to stop a Petaluma casino. “I’ve done all of that — and so has the city — prior to this particular suggestion.”

The proposal to join the existing lawsuit against the Graton casino was first brought up by the Stop the Graton Casino Coalition at a meeting it held with Petaluma residents on Oct. 2. Coalition members said Petaluma should join their fight against Graton’s massive 3,000-slot machine, Las Vegas-style casino as the best way to stop the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians from building a larger casino on land they own south of town.

The coalition’s suggestion hinges on the idea that Graton’s new casino — scheduled to open Nov. 5 — will pull large amounts of revenue from Dry Creek’s existing River Rock Casino in Geyserville.

“It’s pure economics” said Stop the Casino 101 Coalition leader Chip Worthington. “If Graton dries up the money at River Rock, Dry Creek will want to put a casino on their land south of the city.”

The city council discussed joining the lawsuit in closed session at Monday’s meeting, but took no reportable action.

While some council members favor joining the existing litigation — notably Councilmember Mike Healy, who has acted as legal counsel to the Stop the Casino coalition’s lawsuit against Graton — not everyone appears interested in joining a suit that has already been struck down by a judge and is now being appealed. He could not discuss what was said in closed session, but Glass said he has been working with Sarris, and joining the coalition’s lawsuit could jeopardize the collaboration.

The Dry Creek tribe, whose Rancheria is located in Geyserville, purchased the property located at Kastania Road in 2005. Shortly after buying the property, the tribe announced plans to build a gaming casino on the site and submitted an application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to have the land taken into trust — a prerequisite to building a casino.

After a public vote in 2006 showed that almost 80 percent of Petaluma voters did not want the tribe to build a casino so close to city limits, Dry Creek allowed their trust application to expire and signed an agreement with Sonoma County to not pursue gaming on the property until 2016.

Since signing the agreement with the county, the tribe has let the land sit vacant. Recently, Dry Creek’s Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins told local officials he was working on site development plans that do not include a casino. He submitted design plans to the county that show ballfields, a convenience store, housing, a gas station and several restaurants. The plans also included two large sections of the property simply called “future development” sites. No information has been provided on what the tribe intends to build at those sites, which combined amount to about half of the total 277 acres.

Hopkins also told Petaluma’s Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt that the tribe is again working on an application to the BIA to have the land taken into federal trust, though not for gambling purposes. He has not returned multiple calls for comment.

With Rohnert Park’s casino predicted to syphon as much as 40 percent of profits away from Dry Creek’s River Rock casino, local officials have been working to find a way to ensure the Dry Creek tribe will not have their Kastania Road land taken in to federal trust.

In August, at Healy’s urging, the city sent a letter to Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Congressman Jared Huffman, asking them to oppose the land-to-trust application.

Huffman, a longtime opponent of casinos in Sonoma County, said he will oppose the application and favor any legislation that hinders the land-to-trust process.

Feinstein sent a response letter to the city, saying that her office was aware of the city’s concerns. She added that she spoke to the BIA, which she said was aware of a proposal but had not yet received any trust-related application, and she encouraged the city to share its concerns directly with the BIA.

Boxer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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

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