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Rohnert Park casino project clears big hurdle

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.





13 Responses to “Rohnert Park casino project clears big hurdle”

  1. PJ says:

    I hope those homes they are starting to build near Petaluma Hill Rd sit there empty for YEARS just like the ones they built in Sonoma Mountain. There are way too many homes/apartments in this town. I will be moving out of RP just as soon as I can!!

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  2. Geoff Johnson says:

    What’s really outrageous, is that the BIA has created an Indian Reservation for The Tribe That Never Was.

    Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris, who reportedly is not an Indian himself, organized the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria in the 1990s; and an Act of Congress made the FIGR a sovereign Indian Tribe barely ten years ago.

    The Graton Rancheria was never an Indian “Reservation”, and the FIGR never lived on the Rancheria. They couldn’t have, because their “tribe” was not created until decades after the Federal Government terminated the Rancheria, and gave the property to the handful of individuals who actually did live there.

    It appears that Sarris organized the FIGR for no other reason than to front for the Nevada gambling interests, and build a casino, somewhere in the territory where the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo once lived.

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  3. RP MOM says:

    HHmmmm…good point…there was a water “issue” with the casino but NOT with the new Codding development off Pet Hill Rd? Something doesn’t add up here. Or is it the “special” math some council members have introduced? Whatever the case, something is rotten in Denmark via RP

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 5

  4. Grey Whitmore says:

    http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/ngisc/index.html

    A link to a comprehensive study by the Justice Department, in association with a number of universities. I gives concrete steps communities can take to mitigate issues associated with gambling.

    And yes, the casino will be built but there are still ways to change policy. Read this report.

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  5. Sleepless on Stony POint says:

    The city of rohnert park never had issues concerning water and the casino- They’re the ones who brought the casino here in the first place: Armando, Carl, Jake, Amy, Vicky, Greg and good ole Jimmy- Actually, RP has never had “water issues” with anything. These guys think that water comes from a faucet. Period.

    Then the tribe “purchased” the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation for a mere $100,000.00. The tribe will flush it’s effluent down the Laguna with the foundation’s blessing :)

    It has truly been a disgusting seven year ride. Watching the tribe throw millions of dollars around in “payoffs” and “charitable donations” to any person or organization willing to whore themselves out for it.

    And yes, this thing will be a blight, not a boon.

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  6. Paying Attention says:

    So what you are saying is that the citizens will pay $10k a day for water and sewer no matter what?

    We are subsidizing Codding!

    City Council looks after the corporation of RP, not the families that live in it.

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4

  7. 0 Representation says:

    @@ re: water issues

    At the Casino meeting (a few years ago) when it was held at Spreckles water was a main concern by ALL. But it seems the city doesn’t have the same concern for the new Codding Developement hence my sarcasim. How can there be water issues for the casino but not this new approved development?

    Measure L isn’t the reason there isn’t a sewage line. There isn’t a sewage line for the new Codding development because THEY don’t want to pay for it. Let’s be quite frank.. Codding and the City Council EXPECTS absolutely EVERYBODY to pay for this sewage line. That is ABOMINABLE! The only people that should be paying for that sewage line is Codding and they can pass on their cost to the buyer. Why should WE the taxpayers pick up Coddings tab? The city council made sure we weren’t going to do it for SSU’s property on Petaluma Hill Rd.

    Thumb up 9 Thumb down 3

  8. Graeme Wellington says:

    It’s really too late now to stop the casino. This was the key hurdle they needed to overcome. Absolutely no legal effort will be able to overcome the Supreme court precedents, no matter how well-intentioned or popular.

    I’m sure lawyers will collect a lot of fees for trying and I’m sure a lot of opponents will deny the reality and continue their efforts. However, the fat lady has sung. It’s over.

    I think they could make it a culinary and entertainment venue in addition to a casino and be very successful. I’ve driven up and down the I-5 corridor and seen a few of the other casinos. Very often they have A and B list performers most of us would pay to see.

    Personally I think the Wells Fargo Center is a dump and it’s uncomfortable. If the same acts moved to a new and comfortable venue at the Rohnert Park casino complex, it definitely will succeed.

    Bread and Circuses baby. That’s the ticket.

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 7

  9. @ 0 representation says:

    “As for any water and sewage issues.. I don’t think there are any especially since Codding just got approval to build all those houses when there are hundreds sitting empty because of the economy. Another lousy decision made by our city council.”

    There are water and sewer issues! Very real issues. Codding cannot build out and of those homes that are built, they can’t put toilets in them. There is no sewer line because the people of Rohnert Park wanted to save a few bucks on their water bill.

    Almost all development (which =revenue for the city) has been halted by Measure L. Measure L killed Rohnert Park and created most of this mess. The taxpayers are paying $10,000 a day, a day, out of their own pockets (the general fund) to pay for water and sewer because of Measure L.

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  10. Jason Valez says:

    When I saw this article, my first thought was to move away from Sonoma County. This project will produce such blight on the area that it will forever change the quality of life here. When big money interests including non-Indians come and put up their big fat developments, it’s a real slap in the face to the people living and raising families here. I’m proud of all the people that have been fighting against this monstrosity and I’m planning to join them in defending their community.

    Gambling brings with it a criminal and drug ridden element that should not be placed next to a family oriented community and a State University. Lives and families are often ruined by addictive gambling. Let’s keep them out of our area.

    Thumb up 20 Thumb down 13

  11. Paying Attention says:

    Wow, our city is going to pot. We can’t trust any of the council members in office or the wanna-bes. They really do NOT represent us. We are their ATM card and that’s it.

    Giving the biggest developer ~$1.4 million of our tax money so Codding can build more houses, that we will have to pay for water and sewer.

    That’s why the sewer rates will be going up again.

    The city council members sit in that multi million dollar city hall that we paid for and scratch each other’s backs (and other special interests of THEIR’s).

    Nowhere is there anyone watching out for the little guy, the citizen.

    Hopefully we can unite – because we are their biggest fear. We have the numbers.
    And they work for us, don’t forget that. Use your voice!

    Thumb up 15 Thumb down 7

  12. zuma says:

    Payola!

    Money talks and BS walks!

    So now we have liquor in the form of wines, gambling, and we all know what the third and final vice will be!

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 5

  13. 0 representation says:

    So the casino is one step closer to actually happening. I wasn’t for it and I’m still not. I have concerns for how my community will change because of it. I never wanted to live in a “little Reno” type of city. I would never have bought a home here knowing it was in the works. But some how I wasn’t given a vote on the matter. My beef isn’t with the tribe. In fact it’s with our lack of city gov’t leadership. Once Jake MacKenzie suggested the casino being in RP the ball started rolling. Then Carl Levino and former city council members made a little trip to Sacramento to meet with Arnold’s people unbeknownst to the citizens of our city. This is NOT the representation I want running my city gov’t. I don’t care who backs the candidates. It’s time for the city council to realize you work for ALL of the citzens in Rohnert Park.

    As for any water and sewage issues.. I don’t think there are any especially since Codding just got approval to build all those houses when there are hundreds sitting empty because of the economy. Another lousy decision made by our city council.

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 7

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