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Dry Creek tribe eyes Petaluma site for housing, sports


A 277-acre parcel south of Petaluma owned by the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo once was considered as a second casino site.

But recently the tribe, which operates River Rock casino near Geyserville, unveiled plans for a housing and public sports complex on the land east of Kastania Road, saying it had dropped plans for another casino.

With the scheduled opening in November of the Graton Rancheria's casino in Rohnert Park, the site south of Petaluma might seem an attractive spot for Dry Creek to leapfrog closer to the Bay Area to build a new casino.

But tribal leaders say otherwise.

"It's not a benefit to Dry Creek at this point to leapfrog," said Dry Creek Chairman Harvey Hopkins, who said that to compete, the tribe would have to take on debt approaching the $800 million borrowed by Graton.

With revenue sharing that would be required with local cities and county government to mitigate impacts of the gambling facility, as well as casino management fees, that could easily mean "50percent of your money is going to other governments besides your own. It doesn't make sense," Hopkins said.

Dry Creek already is indebted more than $170 million to bondholders for its existing casino near Geyserville.

South Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt and Petaluma Mayor David Glass said they appreciate that the tribe now plans a noncasino development. But they also want more assurances, especially if city water or sewer services are to be extended to the property to help with the tribe's plans.

Because of the impact the Graton resort will have on River Rock, the elected officials said they aren't convinced a casino would not be proposed south of Petaluma.

"In the background is always the veiled threat of a casino that I feel in order for us to come together and be partners on any proposal, the casino needs to be totally eliminated from potential on that site," Rabbitt said. "If I were 100percent guaranteed of no casino, I would roll up my sleeves to work with them."

Glass said he's spoken with Hopkins several times and believes him to be "an honorable person." But "he's also dealing with a dynamic that could take on a life of its own and twist and turn and lead to places he doesn't currently intend to go," Glass said of the potential for the tribe's current plan to morph into a casino.

As shown in design drawings, the project calls for 42 to 43 townhouses and condominiums for tribal members, six sports fields, an indoor sports facility, restaurant, convenience store, gas station, medical clinic and fire station.

The tribe also plans to preserve a greenbelt and develop a wetlands mitigation bank near the Petaluma River. That would help generate revenue by allowing the tribe to sell credits to developers who are required to offset the loss of wetlands for construction projects in other areas.

As the first step to have the land taken into federal trust, Hopkins said Dry Creek recently submitted a resolution to the Bureau of Indian Affairs stating the tribe's intent for non-gaming uses.

He estimated it will take three to five years to conduct environmental studies and have the land taken into trust, compared to the 10 to 15 years and uncertain outcome if a casino were planned there.

In 2005, the tribe submitted a trust application that included a casino, but it "expired," Hopkins said.

That was prior to the tribe's decision to shift to a hotel-resort expansion at River Rock Casino. Those plans ended up being shelved during the recession.

As part of its memorandum with the county in 2008 paving the way for an expanded River Rock, the tribe agreed not to pursue a casino on its Petaluma property until at least 2016.

Skeptics have questioned why the tribe needs to put the land into trust if it has no plans for gaming, or why it needs a firehouse, since there is an existing one a mile away.

But Hopkins said putting it into trust will make it easier to pursue housing, for instance. Once designated Indian land, it would not be subject to the county zoning regulations, which designate most of the property for agriculture.

And a firehouse will provide protection for the community, he said especially "old people and children."

The tribe would like to get access to utilities for the Petaluma land, including sewer service for the tribal housing. But Hopkins recognizes that would take approval from Petaluma voters to extend sewer service beyond the city's urban boundary.

Mayor Glass said ballot language would have to be crafted to make sure no casino was built.

Supervisor Rabbitt said it's possible water service could be extended from the North Marin Water District, although the district general manager said last week the agency's policy precludes service to the tribe's land.

Staff Writer Clark Mason can be reached at 521-5214 and clark.mason@pressemocrat.com.