By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria are set to donate $500,000 to Sonoma County as part of an agreement to support a long-term plan for Tolay Lake Regional Park and secure an advisory role in the park’s development.
The 3,426-acre park east of Petaluma is seen as a important Native American cultural and historic site in the county.
It was purchased in 2005 and 2007 with $31 million in public funds and private donations, but public access has been limited through a permit program.
A master plan that would enable full public use and guide long-term development has been delayed by funding shortfalls.
Earlier this year, county Regional Parks director Caryl Hart approached Graton Rancheria officials to ask for help paying for the plan.
Given the site’s importance to tribes, Hart said, “my feeling was that it would be a great collaboration.”
The tribe’s $500,000, along with $300,000 from the state Coastal Conservancy, is expected to fully cover the planning work. Selection of a consultant to oversee that process, including public hearings and workshops, is expected within the next few months.
Supervisors are set to vote Aug. 9 on the agreement with the Graton Rancheria. It would make the tribe a “cooperating agency,” meaning that the county “will use the expertise and input of the Graton Tribe to the maximum extent possible, but the County is the lead agency for this project,” according to the proposal. The deal would be in place until completion of the final environmental documents for the park.
Hart said the agreement comes with no strings attached to the tribe’s other projects in the area, including its proposed casino in Rohnert Park.
“This is unconnected to anything else they’re doing in the county,” Hart said.
The deal comes just weeks after Greg Sarris, chairman of the Graton Rancheria, urged state officials to look to tribal casinos as a key source of park funding.
Speaking at a special hearing of the state Assembly parks committee in Santa Rosa in June, Sarris vowed the Graton tribe would contribute $2 million to $5 million a year for 20 years to state and regional parks.
That offer appeared to be contingent upon a compact with the governor to allow gaming at the tribe’s proposed casino.
Sarris and Lorelle Ross, the tribe’s vice-chairwoman, did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.
Tribal contributions to local government are not new. Since 2004, under an agreement with the city of Rohnert Park, the Graton Rancheria has given the city nearly $3 million to support public safety services. Facing a stall in its casino plans, the tribe chose not make its regular $500,000 contribution last year, an opt-out provision built into the agreement. The city’s budget does not count on a donation from the tribe this year.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who represents most of Rohnert Park, said the county’s agreement with the tribe, including the donation for Tolay Lake, would not undermine the county’s stance in negotiations over the proposed casino, including discussions about the cost of public services.
“We wouldn’t even be discussing this right now” if that weren’t the case, Zane said. “This is a voluntary donation. It has absolutely no bearing or relationship with the potential impacts of the casino development.”