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Lytton Rancheria agrees to pay Windsor $20 million to access wastewater plant

Windsor will accept a $20 million payment from the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians in exchange for allowing the tribe to connect to the town’s wastewater treatment plant for its large housing development just outside town on tribal land.

The Town Council voted 5-0 last week to approve the deal, which was negotiated over the past five months. The agreement outlines where sewage will be directed and treated for the majority of the development planned on the tribe’s 500-plus-acre reservation west of Windsor, which was formally recognized by the federal government last year.

A second approval between the town and the sovereign nation is still necessary to finalize several details, including utility maintenance responsibilities, water reclamation rights and the tribe’s monthly rates once service begins. But the initial vote affirms the intention of the town and the Lytton Rancheria to collaborate on a solution for the bulk of the wastewater from the tribe’s development, which envisions more than 360 housing units and several other tribal cultural and government buildings built during two phases.

The tribe had previously considered building its own water treatment plant, but instead settled on hooking up to the municipal system to take advantage of various efficiencies and strike a deal that is mutually beneficial to both sides, said Doug Elmets, a spokesman for the tribe. The agreement does not cover sewage service for future tribal commercial properties, such as a 200-room resort hotel and 200,000-case winery, and will still require the tribe to construct a smaller wastewater treatment plant once those projects are finished.

“It’s probably in everyone’s interest to be able to have an agreement and a connection between the tribal land and the town’s wastewater treatment,” Elmets said. “It furthers the cooperative government-?to-government relationship that has evolved productively over time. This is something that works well for all parties concerned.”

The proposal came as a surprise to several Windsor residents, who criticized the Town Council during its meeting Wednesday for being in active negotiations that were not divulged to the public until early this month. The item was first identified by Town Manager Ken MacNab at the May 6 council meeting and landed on the May 20 agenda.

“It was news to a lot of people who have spent a lot of time and effort on ensuring the right thing is done and the legal thing is done,” said Windsor resident Betsy Mallace, 58. “Ultimately, do I think it’s the right thing to do? Yeah. My issue was that it wasn’t a public process.”

MacNab acknowledged that the item came before the council quickly once he and staff determined in April that terms would be reached between the two sides. It had not previously been discussed in public due to what he called the “sensitivity of negotiations,” but the tight turnaround, he said, was necessary based on the tribe’s construction timeline. The town made efforts to individually contact residents long involved in issues related to the Pomo tribe, he said.

The five council members each noted their intention to support the proposed deal before Vice Mayor Esther Lemus and longtime Councilman Sam Salmon requested the vote be delayed a week to allow the public more time to digest the lengthy agreement and offer more input. The other council members deemed it unnecessary, and all voted to back the agreement.

Windsor plans to use $16.5 million of the one-time proceeds on a new recreation center or community pool at the town’s Keiser Park, estimated to cost between $15 million and $20 million. The town will involve residents to decide how to spend the money at future council meetings, MacNab said.

The remaining $3.5 million would go toward making improvements to the town’s water treatment facility. During negotiations, the town studied the condition of the plant to determine whether it could support the 177-acre project. The upgrades would provide added capacity to meet the tribe’s needs and other near-term development inside the town of 28,600 residents.

The Pomo tribe, which owns a casino in the East Bay city of San Pablo, has a long and difficult history in the region.

The Lyttons lost their land north of Healdsburg in 1961 when the U.S. government ended its recognition before restoring it three decades later, but without property or any means to support tribal members, who today total 300 adults.

An act of Congress in 2000 allowed the tribe to convert a San Pablo card room into a casino, and the Lyttons have since bought nearly 3,000 acres across Sonoma County. In 2017, for example, the tribe paid $30 million for a 564-acre site north of Healdsburg previously occupied by the Salvation Army’s Lytton Springs rehabilitation center.

Two years earlier, the county’s Board of Supervisors approved an agreement that permits the Lytton housing project, tribal buildings and hotel and winery. It stipulated the tribe pay the county millions of dollars in fees and compensation in place of property taxes, and also agree not to build a casino on the land or anywhere within county limits.

The Lyttons also agreed to annual payments to the Windsor Fire Protection District for emergency services, and to make a $1 million contribution to the Windsor Unified School District, a sum that equates to the fees the town would receive from a private home developer.

Meanwhile, over a four-year period, three separate congressional bills - two carried by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael - sought federal recognition for the land west of Windsor as the tribe’s reservation. The third attempt was included in the nation’s defense spending bill for 2019, which received 90% approval in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate before President Donald Trump signed it into law in December, formally placing the land in trust with the federal government.

By January, construction crews were out on the oak-studded rural property to remove trees and do grading work. The first phase of housing for tribal members - 147 homes on 124 acres - is ahead of schedule, and installation of utilities and vertical building is expected to get underway this fall, Elmets said. It is expected to take 24 to 30 months to finish.

The development’s first phase, including a 19,000-square-foot community center and 2,700-square-foot tribal retreat, will follow the initial set of housing units. The remaining 214 residences on 53 acres, an additional 60,000 square feet of government and community buildings, plus the hotel and winery, are anticipated to take “a matter of years” to complete, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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