By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A 254-acre parcel of land at the edge of Rohnert Park has been taken into trust for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which plans to build a Las Vegas-style casino and resort there.
Friday’s action by the federal Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs effectively makes the land a tribal reservation, removing it from county jurisdiction and moving the controversial project significantly closer to reality.
However, several legal steps still must take place at the state level. The tribe, for instance, must now negotiate a gaming compact with the governor’s office, and questions remain about the project’s feasibility during a slumping economy.
Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris did not return calls seeking comment Monday.
But supporters of the Graton tribe welcomed Friday’s action, saying the project will boost the local economy as well as rejuvenate the tribe, which claims 1000 Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo Indians.
“We’re very happy that the land has finally been taken into trust. It’s long overdue,” said Jack Buckhorn, a director of the Friends of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.
The Interior Department decided in 2008 to take the land into trust, but delayed that action after casino opponents challenged it in court. The lawsuit was rejected by a federal appeals court in June.
Foes of the casino project, which could include 2,000 slot machines, a 300-room hotel and a convention center on a site near Wilfred Avenue, were discouraged Monday but vowed to keep trying to halt it.
“I’m highly disappointed that that has happened, and I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen next,” said Chip Worthington, a leader of Stop the Casino 101, a coalition of groups opposing the project.
“The battle will continue,” he said. “We’re going to keep fighting and never quit fighting.”
Stop the Casino 101 filed the lawsuit challenging the 2008 decision to take the land into trust, arguing that the federal government could not create a sovereign nation within California without the state’s consent.
A plaintiff in that lawsuit, Petaluma City Councilman Mike Healy, on Monday said challenging the federal government’s 2008 decision was “just one line of defense.”
He said, “There are still others, most notably the wildly inadequate environmental impact statement they prepared for the project. That can be challenged in court, and I’m sure it will be.”
Among environmental issues opponents have raised are the project’s impact on water supplies, increased traffic and the potential effects on wildlife, including the endangered California tiger salamander.
Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said Monday the federal decision to take the land into trust “highlights” the value of a 2008 agreement between the tribe and the county.
The agreement, which angered many casino opponents, said that if the county and the tribe cannot agree on how to lessen the casino’s environmental impacts, they will enter binding arbitration to resolve the differences.
That gives supervisors the ability to minimize the cost to the broader community of mitigating the project’s impacts, said Zane, whose 3rd District includes much of Rohnert Park
“That’s the only power we really have right now,” Zane said. “This agreement allows us to enforce the mitigation. And the Graton tribe, to their credit, did not have to sign this. So it’s to their credit.”
Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose 5th district also borders the casino land, said, “I see this board embarking on a very expensive negotiating process in regards to this project. But it really is our responsibility as a board.”
For the tribe’s part, before proceeding it must wait for the National Indian Gaming Commission to certify the land as eligible for gaming, another point at which opponents may try to make a stand.
Following that, the tribe would have to reach agreement on a gaming compact with the governor’s office. Compacts govern the number of slots, gaming tables and other features of the casino. Those negotiations will take place with a governor other than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The state legislature must then ratify the compact.
While each of these steps present potential stumbling blocks for the tribe’s plans, experienced observers said Monday the momentum belongs to the tribe and its plans.
“Potentially there could be another delay, another hurdle, but if the land’s in trust, the tribe and their gaming investors are moving forward,” said Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up for California, a Penryn-based gambling watchdog group.
The ability of those investors to move forward is as yet unknown.
The Las Vegas company bankrolling the project, Station Casinos, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, raising questions about the casino plans.
At the time of the July 2009 filing, the company’s quarterly report stated that it had spent more than $140 million trying to develop the casino. It had spent $100 million buying the land and given millions more to the tribe.
Company officials did not return calls seeking comment on Monday, but they have previously said the project will go forward as planned.
In Rohnert Park, the proposed casino has been as divisive a political issue as any in the last decade. It also has major financial ramifications for the cash-strapped city.
In 2003, city leaders negotiated a pact with the tribe under which the tribe would, if its revenues met expectations, pay the city and various community groups about $200 million over 20 years.
That prompted casino foes to mount a recall campaign against two councilmembers.
The recall effort was unsuccessful, but it left wounds that could quickly be reopened if the project moves forward.
“The city was divided two or three years ago, and I suspect that hasn’t changed,” said Councilman Jake Mackenzie. He first floated the idea that the tribe could locate its casino in Rohnert Park, but later was the sole vote opposing the financial agreement.
He added, “In terms of the fiscal impact on the city, that would be regarded as good news if it opens it doors.”
Since 2004, the tribe has given about $3 million to Rohnert Park’s public safety department. But this year, although the city’s budget assumes another $500,000 contribution from the tribe, officials have acknowledged they do not know if it will be forthcoming.