By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A hearing Tuesday night into the impacts of the Indian casino planned outside Rohnert Park recalled the passions that roiled Sonoma County from 2003 to 2008, before lawsuits, environmental studies and the economy’s slide slowed a project that now appears close to fruition.
“Having a casino here would absolutely destroy Sonoma County,” said Sebastopol resident Peter Walker, who suggested that the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria’s Las Vegas backers, Station Casinos, would bring “dirty money” into the county.
Out of an audience of perhaps 150 people who crowded the Board of Supervisors’ chambers, Walker was one of many who said their quality of life and the county as a whole would suffer if the casino is built, something officials and experts now believe is virtually assured.
The casino’s strain on public services and its effect on crime, groundwater and traffic were foremost among issues raised Tuesday.
“It cannot be cavalierly mitigated; it has to be worked on,” said Dieter Stroeh, speaking to fears that the casino project will draw down precious groundwater supplies.
“There needs to be a monitoring program set up now,” said Stroeh, who owns property on Wilfred Avenue, which borders the casino site.
Anger was frequently a dominant theme at early hearings on the casino, and vitriol not uncommon, but casino opponents on Tuesday more often articulated a frustrated sense of being powerless to affect one of the largest developments in the county’s history.
“Our property becomes worthless through no fault of our own,” said Loretta Smith, who said she lives two miles north of the planned casino.
Supporters of the tribe spoke back, standing up for the Graton Rancheria and the project.
“These people have been hanging by a thread for a decade; it’s enough,” said Oakmont resident Steve Carroll, referring to the time that has passed since the tribe announced its intentions. He said the casino would pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy.
“The tribe has gone above and beyond to mitigate impacts at every level of this process,” said Jack Buckhorn, secretary-treasurer of Sonoma Lake Mendocino Building Trades, a labor group. He said 43 percent of local jobs lost since 2007 have been among workers he represents.
Graton Rancheria chairman Greg Sarris was in the audience, but did not speak. Afterward, asked for comment, he twice turned away without replying.
An agreement, known as a compact, between the state and tribe that allows the tribe to start work on the project is now under final review by the federal Department of the Interior, which has until July 6 to accept it, reject it or take no action. The latter option would allow it to take effect. Its approval is widely expected.
The 535,000-square-foot project would include a 100,000-square-foot casino, a six-story, 200-room hotel to be built at a later date, three bars, four restaurants and a food court.
Supervisors on Tuesday reiterated their opposition to the 3,000-slot machine casino-resort, and said that they have no control over whether it gets built.
“It’s not our say,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose 2nd District includes the casino site. “We have our frustrations on that as well.”
The purpose of the hearing was solely to gather public input before negotiations start with the Graton Rancheria over how the tribe addresses the project’s impacts. The supervisors took no action.
The county and tribe in 2004 signed a pact to negotiate those measures once other approvals were in place and to go to binding arbitration should they not reach agreement.
“The county now has the opportunity to exploit that opportunity,” County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said Tuesday.
Opponents had excoriated the 2008 agreement when it was announced, saying the county was folding its hand and stopping the fight against the casino.
Officials at Station Casinos, which is to manage the casino for its first seven years, have estimated its cost at more than $700 million, with land purchases.
The project has gone through several layers of negotiations and review. Six years of environmental review led to a 2010 decision by the federal National Indian Gaming Commission to approve it. That decision included 30 pages of measures required of the tribe to address casino impacts.
Those targeted issues range from air quality to traffic and roads and social services — impacts that “we believe will be significant,” said Lori Norton, deputy county administrator.
County officials and opponents still term the study and its requirements inadequate.
For example, the report projects about 14,274 additional vehicle trips a day because of the project; opponents predict 40,000.
The Indian gaming commission environmental report and project approval “is widely recognized as imprecise,” said Ken Roberts of Sebastopol, speaking to issues of groundwater impacts. “In negotiations … you need to wind up with something more specific and actionable.”
“It’s four years out of date and its assumptions are conservative,” Robert O’Dell of Santa Rosa said of the environmental report.
Negotiations with Gov. Jerry Brown’s office led to additional requirements incorporated into in the compact. It orders the tribe to make mitigation payments to the county that officials estimate at $40 million over the first seven years, and more after that.
Indian law gambling experts and officials described the compact as groundbreaking in the ability it gave local governments to negotiate further mitigation measures.
In the case of the Graton Rancheria’s compact, the tribe also was required to have additional agreements with the county and Rohnert Park.
The tribe in 2003 signed a deal with Rohnert Park under which, if revenue meets projected levels, the tribe will pay about $200 million over 20 years to the city for public safety, social services and schools.
“The tribe remains ready and willing to do the right thing and reach an agreement with the county,” said the Graton Rancheria’s attorney, John Maier.
Former Rohnert Park Councilwoman Dawna Gallagher called on the board to urge California’s senators to convince the Interior Department to delay its decision until the mitigation measures are fully established. To do otherwise, she said, would be to “put the cart before the horse.”
“If you’re going to do what they say they’re going to do, she said, referring to the tribe, “it’s going to be a bad state of affairs for the people of Sonoma County. You have power right now.”
Goldstein, the county counsel, said the county had no ability to change the department’s decision-making schedule without a change in federal law.
Afterward, Maier said the meeting “was a constructive evening.”