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Petaluma casino threat looms


Will Petaluma one day become the meat in a casino sandwich?

With construction underway on a gargantuan casino complex near Rohnert Park, and the threat of another casino looming just south of town, it may very well happen.

In 2006, the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomos, which operates the River Rock Casino near Geyserville, announced plans to take its 277-acre property alongside Highway 101 east of Kastania Road into federal trust in order to develop a second "class III gaming facility." Though the tribe's application to the federal government was later withdrawn, it could easily be resubmitted.

With the competing Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria having begun construction on its Rohnert Park casino, it will not be long before the number of visitors to the River Rock casino will dwindle, and profits will plunge. Given that the casino located closest to the lucrative Bay Area gambling market is likely to earn the biggest revenues and profits, what's to stop the Dry Creek Band from leap-frogging down the highway and following up on their original plan to build a casino here in Petaluma?

This is a classic case of what has come to be known as "reservation shopping," a shameful practice whereby competing tribes purchase private property well beyond their own ancestral boundaries in order to develop more profitable gambling enterprises. Though still legal, it vividly demonstrates how weak laws, money and political influence have overwhelmed and ultimately begun to ruin local communities throughout California.

The result of a large casino complex on Petaluma's southern flank is easy to predict: massive traffic jams and increased accidents along highway 101; increased crime and pollution; severe water shortages in an already water-scarce region; wastewater disposal problems impacting the nearby Petaluma River; lowered housing availability, particularly for lower income families; and impaired fire protection and law enforcement services.

According to Cheryl Schmidt, director of Stand up for California, a state watchdog group on Indian gaming, the Dry Creek casino project could move ahead depending on how Gov. Jerry Brown proceeds with two off-reservation gaming applications currently under review.

His decision in those cases, expected later this month, could set a precedent for sites like the Dry Creek Band's Petaluma property, which is also not on a reservation. Schmidt, who likens the competing tribes' actions to a "gaming arms race," says if the governor approves the other tribes' applications, a casino in Petaluma "would become a very real possibility."

But it's not a project Petaluma wants. Shortly after the Dry Creek Indian tribe announced their Petaluma casino development plans, nearly 80 percent of local voters went to the polls in 2006 and clearly said "no" to a casino. But the vote was only advisory in nature, and is unlikely to do much to stop the tribe from building a casino.

In 2008, the County Board of Supervisors signed a conciliatory agreement stipulating that no casino would be built on the tribe's Petaluma property for eight years in exchange for dedicating a portion of the land as open space. The tribe later said it would permanently abandon all plans for a casino in Petaluma if the city would just provide water and sewer hook-ups for an alternative commercial project on the site, such as a baseball stadium, hotel, golf course or service station.

But Petaluma officials at the time were not eager to relinquish some of the city's increasingly precious water supply and limited sewer capacity in order to prevent a casino from being built on its doorstep.

Now, with just four years remaining until the tribe can resubmit its application for a casino, it appears some members of the city council are considering a more pragmatic approach. Councilmember Mike Healy, who is currently involved in a lawsuit challenging the governor's Rohnert Park gaming compact decision and initiated the advisory vote against a Petaluma casino in 2006, suggested last week that the city "reach out to the Dry Creek tribe to see what we can do to incentivize them to not build a casino." Among the incentives he suggested considering were the very same water and sewer hook-ups the tribe had previously sought, noting that he personally favored some type of an agricultural support use on the property that would be consistent with current zoning codes.

Assuming such negotiations and land use permitting processes could be done in a transparent manner, it's certainly worth careful consideration, especially given the alternative.

It's unknown if the tribe is still willing to consider operating a more conventional and appropriately sited business on its property, and go through the permitting and approval process like everyone else to get it built. Especially with the alternative of potentially making many millions of dollars with another casino, it's likely to be a difficult decision for tribal members to make.

What will not be a difficult decision would be for Petaluma residents and their elected officials to fight passionately against a casino project that would cause irreparable harm to this community for years to come.