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Lytton Pomo tribe secures Windsor reservation, begins work on development

A sprawling, wooded tract of land west of Windsor is now the fifth tribal reservation in Sonoma County, fulfilling the long-sought goal of the Lytton Rancheria to build homes for its members, along with a resort and winery, on land officially held in trust by the federal government.

An act of Congress adopted with scant notice last month granted the Pomo tribe a 511-acre reservation, where it has long outlined a planned development with county officials, along with millions of dollars in payments to the county, Windsor schools and firefighters.

It also righted a wrong done nearly 60 years ago when the Lytton Rancheria was “unjustly and unlawfully” terminated by the federal government, dispossessed of its land and “any means of supporting itself,” according to the measure sponsored by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. Tucked into a 3,448-page defense spending bill, it was approved by 90 percent of the House of Representatives and Senate and signed in December by President Donald Trump.

“Congress needs to take action to reverse historic injustices that befell the tribe and that have prevented it from regaining a viable homeland for its people,” the Lytton Rancheria Homelands Act of 2019 said.

Margie Mejia, chairwoman of the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, said the 300-member tribe has waited for decades to once again live on its own land.

“Finally that day has come,” she said in an email. “We look forward to creating a community where our families can flourish and where we can celebrate our common heritage.”

Mejia, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed. The tribe also would not grant The Press Democrat access to photograph the site, where preliminary work began this week.

Sonoma County supervisors signed off in 2015 on an agreement that allows the rancheria to develop 147 homes on a 124-acre portion of the reservation, with a 200-room resort and a 200,000-case winery on separate parcels.

The tribe is barred by the law from gambling on the 511-acre site and anywhere else in the county.

Crews this week were removing trees to make way for roads and homes on the rolling, oak-studded rural land, a job that will take about six weeks, said Doug Elmets, a tribal spokesman.

Under its agreement with the county, the tribe said it would mark and protect larger trees and provide funding to replace each one of the smaller trees that are cut down.

Following grading and installation of utilities, housing construction is scheduled to start next year and will take 24 to 30 months to complete, Elmets said.

Huffman lauded the agreement reached between the county and tribe - including payments to make up for lost tax revenue - calling it a “win-win solution” for both sides that avoided “endless litigation.”

“This is the tribe’s ancestral land and they have a critical need for housing and economic development, which this project will help them with,” he said in an email.

Native American tribes are exempt from taxation and local land use controls but have the option, chosen by Lytton, to negotiate arrangements with local governments.

Lytton agreed to pay the county $6 million to offset impact on roads, parks and woodlands, as well as 9% of hotel room and vacation rental revenue and other contributions, plus $1 million to the Windsor Unified School District and annual payments to Windsor firefighters.

The schools payment represents the equivalent of fees that a private housing developer would pay. The district is holding the money in the bank, said Lois Standring, the district’s chief business officer.

“We’re happy they were willing to work with us,” she said.

Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli said he looks forward to “having a strong, productive relationship with the tribe.”

“I’d like to congratulate the tribe and say welcome home,” said Supervisor James Gore, whose district includes the reservation that runs along the south side of Windsor River Road out to Eastside Road.

The tribe has a green light to develop the housing, he said, but must engage with the county on an environmental assessment of the resort and winery, with an emphasis on groundwater use, wastewater treatment and traffic.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Gore said, adding that he is concerned about the impact of development on a “beautiful, pristine property.”

The Lytton Rancheria lost its homeland in Alexander Valley north of Healdsburg when its federal recognition was dropped in 1961. Recognition was restored in 1991, but the tribe regained no land nor means of support until 2000, when Congress allowed it to convert a San Pablo card room into a lucrative casino in the East Bay town.

Revenue from the casino enabled the tribe to buy the land next to Windsor as well as the 564-acre Salvation Army property near Healdsburg, purchased for $30 million in 2017.

Four other tribes - Dry Creek Rancheria, Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, Cloverdale Rancheria of Pomo Indians and Kashia Band of Pomo Indians - have reservations in Sonoma County, and both Dry Creek and Graton operate casinos on their land.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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