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Plans for a large tribal housing project in Windsor have cleared a significant hurdle after the Bureau of Indian Affairs determined it will have no significant environmental impact.

The bureau issued its findings late last week over the objections of Sonoma County, Windsor and state officials, who urged a more complete environmental study on the Lytton Rancheria proposal.

The tribe is planning as many as 147 homes, a cultural center, a roundhouse and retreat on 124 acres on the western edge of Windsor, much of it on densely wooded land that would require the clearing of 1,700 oak trees.

"This project remains incompatible with the county and the Town of Windsor's general plan," said North County Supervisor Mike McGuire. The number of housing units is more than nine times what would be allowed under existing zoning, he said.

"It's a dense, suburban-style development as proposed," he said. "It would never be allowed in the unincorporated area of the County of Sonoma."

Windsor Mayor Debora Fudge said she had not read the decision yet, but was surprised by the Bureau of Indian Affairs' determination that no extensive environmental analysis is needed.

"I think there are impacts with water, traffic, lack of a sewer system ... for this number of homes in this area," said Fudge, a retired environmental planner.

For more than a decade, the Lytton Rancheria has been steadily acquiring property on the western boundary of Windsor, along Windsor River Road to Eastside Road.

The 270-member tribe, which operates a casino in the East Bay community of San Pablo, always has insisted it has no plans to build a second casino in Windsor.

Instead, the tribe stated previously<NO1><NO>, it wants to provide a place for members to congregate "for governmental, cultural and social purposes." The site would be close to the tribe's original base near Healdsburg before its rancheria was dissolved by the federal government in 1958.

Attempts to reach a tribal representative were unsuccessful Saturday. Tribal Chair Margie Mejia has declined to be interviewed in the past.

The tribe in 2000 gained congressional approval to establish a 10-acre reservation in San Pablo. It transformed an old card room on the site into a casino with electronic bingo games that essentially are indistinguishable from slot machines.

Windsor residents have remained wary of the tribe's intent, especially since the Lytton Rancheria has spurned requests to stipulate that it will not develop a casino there.

"We have asked them to put that into writing since 2009 and have yet to receive their commitment," McGuire said Saturday.

He added that tribal leaders have not responded to county requests over the past few years to have a direct dialogue about the project.

The tribe has bought more than 200 acres in west Windsor, but only proposes to put 124 acres in federal trust status as Indian land.

"Why do they have to keep buying up so much property here? What is it they are really going to do?" said Bill McCormick, who lives on a three-quarter-acre parcel surrounded by land the tribe has purchased.

McCormick said the project site is only 1.5 miles from Highway 101 and close to Eastside Road, which could serve a potential casino.

Nearby residents and Windsor, school and county officials have all expressed concerns over the impact a housing project would have on traffic, the woodlands and water sources.

The tribe said it intends to plant replacement trees for the 1,700 oaks that would be cut down.

Since it is unlikely to obtain access to Windsor utilities, the tribe plans to develop its own wells and build its own sewer plant, subject to licensing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As part of that, the tribe is proposing a four-acre "effluent pond" that would hold treated wastewater generated by its housing and community center.

It would be located in a meadow north of Windsor River Road, behind the Deer Creek subdivision.

Susan Foster, whose Wellington Circle home backs up to the potential wastewater ponds, said, "I'll be living next to a foreign country. No one else will have rights."

She is concerned about possible breakdowns and "stench" from the wastewater treatment system.

"You can't tell me this isn't going to impact the Town of Windsor," she said. "The lives and lifestyles of well over 20,000 people are going to be seriously impacted by the needs of 250 people who apparently have more status and power."

The decision last week by the BIA is not final until a 30-day comment period expires.

The BIA said mitigation measures will result in less than significant environmental impacts from the project, including constructing to green-building guidelines. There also will be intersection improvements along Windsor River Road and at the intersection of Highway 101 and Old Redwood Highway.

The BIA's decision helps pave the way for the 124 acres the tribe owns to be placed into trust by the federal government and to allow construction to go ahead.

"Once the land goes into trust, local government has very little, if any, say on the scope of development on the project land," McGuire said.

Deputy County Counsel Jeff Brax said the trust application is on a separate track from the project's environmental assessment, and that it's difficult to predict how long a decision will take.

BIA officials "have represented to us that a trust decision is not imminent," Brax said. "We would hope for, and expect, a public comment period to allow for comment on the trust application."

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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