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."