Tribal casino in Rohnert Park clears last hurdle

Nine years after the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria announced plans to open a casino in Sonoma County, inciting opposition and controversy, the tribe has cleared its last governmental hurdle.

In a quiet milestone, the federal government Friday let an agreement between the state and the tribe, known as a compact, take effect by acting neither to reject or approve it.

The compact allows the tribe to operate a Las Vegas-style casino with slot machines and banking card games. It already has the legal ability to run a Class II casino with bingo machines and some card games.

In anticipation of getting the go ahead, the tribe has been holding job fairs and is recruiting executives to run what is to be a 3,000-slot facility just outside Rohnert Park.

Over the next 90 days, Sonoma County officials and the tribe will negotiate how to minimize the impacts of what would be one of the largest developments in North Bay history.

Preliminary talks already have begun over environmental concerns such as the project's effect on groundwater and private wells. It would grow in size to 534,000 square-feet once a 200-room hotel is built at a later date.

"We must continue to be hyper-focused on mitigating any potential negative impacts and not allow any distractions in that mission," County Supervisor said Mike McGuire Friday.

Asked about recent tensions — Graton Rancheria Chairman Greg Sarris in June accused supervisors of spreading "misleading" information about the project — McGuire said that so far, "the conversations have been collaborative in tone."

Sarris did not respond to a request for comment.

Friday's non-action by the Department of Interior was largely anticlimactic. No announcements came from the government or tribe. Work had begun three weeks ago, with an increasing number of Ghilotti Construction trucks moving over the 64 acres south of Home Depot where the casino is to rise.

And it did little to quell longtime opposition to the project, which continues with a lawsuit brought by the Stop the Casino 101 coalition. It is considering filing another, members said Friday.

Still, Graton Rancheria supporters said it was a notable day.

"It's great to take a minute and savor the fact that it's going to happen," said Lisa Maldonado, a longtime ally of the tribe and a leader of labor activists who have supported the project on the promise of the jobs it would bring.

The Department of the Interior had until Friday, the 45th day since state lawmakers approved the compact, to act, or to do nothing.

Casino opponents said that it was both wrong and telling that Indian Affairs Assistant Secretary Donald Laverdure let the compact take effect through inaction.

"When they let them sit on a desk and let them be approved by default, it's that the secretary wants clean hands," said Marilee Montgomery, a Stop the Casino 101 leader. "This is controversial and he didn't want to get in the middle of it."

The group had asked Laverdure to reject the compact while its lawsuit challenging the sovereign status of the tribe's land is still in court.

"They chose to allow it to be approved despite the fact that there's litigation in the court," Montgomery said. "It's extremely disrespectful to the people of Snoma County."

Opponents were heartened last month by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that affirmed that individuals have the right to sue the federal government over decisions taking land into trust for tribes who want to open casinos.

The ruling also extended to six years the time available to people to sue the government about such decisions.

Petaluma Councilman Mike Healy, who wrote the lawsuit now in state court, said one is now being considered for federal court.

"This was expected and it's onto the next round," he said.