The Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians has ambitious plans for a 277-acre tract on the outskirts of Petaluma.

Drawings show six ball fields, an indoor sports facility, about 40 townhouses and condominiums as well as a medical clinic, a gas station, a restaurant and a convenience store. Plans also include a wetlands mitigation bank along the Petaluma River.

The complex would provide housing for tribal members. It also could host youth baseball and soccer tournaments, providing surrounding communities with an economic boost from rapidly expanding travel ball programs.

Where tribal leaders see opportunity, however, some people see a potential threat.

The Dry Creek Pomos own River Rock Casino near Geyserville as well as their acreage on the east side of Highway 101 south of Petaluma. Their casino stands to lose some players when the Graton Rancheria opens its own casino outside Rohnert Park next month, and skeptics of the development plan fear the Dry Creek Pomos will instead build a second casino closer to Bay Area population centers.

"In the background is always the veiled threat of a casino," Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt told Staff Writer Clark Mason for a news account of the Dry Creek tribe's development plans.

Harvey Hopkins, the tribal chairman, told Mason that "it's not a benefit to Dry Creek at this point to leapfrog."

<i>At this point</i>. Those three words feed reservations about the development plan. Not because we think Hopkins is untrustworthy but because tribal leadership changes, circumstances change. Graton Rancheria leaders once said they didn't want a casino. They're now among those expressing public concerns about the Dry Creek Pomos' intentions.

But this need not be a standoff.

Development of the property is currently limited by a memorandum of understanding with Sonoma County — the land is in an unincorporated area — that prohibits the tribe from pursuing casino plans before 2016.

Whatever gets built at the site — if anything does — would benefit greatly from connections to Petaluma's water and sewer systems. That would require an adjustment to Petaluma's voter-approved urban growth boundary.

Here's a proposal: If tribal leaders are serious about their sports and housing complex, they should pursue approval through the county's land-use process. Using that approach, there's no need for the tribe to ask the federal government to take the land into trust.

If the land is held in trust, the tribe isn't obligated to submit to local land-use controls. So the tribe would be giving up a big advantage. Beyond that, casinos can only be built on land held in trust.

Giving that up would create an incentive for Petaluma voters to approve water and sewer services. It would also be an incentive for the county to work with the tribe, because it could return to the trust process if its application gets bogged down or ultimately is denied by the Board of Supervisors.

As Rabbitt told Mason, "If I were 100 percent guaranteed of no casino, I would roll up my sleeves to work with them." He wouldn't be alone.