Lytton Rancheria development outside Windsor stokes big land-use dispute
A tribe’s plan to build housing for its members on the outskirts of Windsor while also potentially adding a 200-room hotel and a large winery has generated one of the biggest land-use disputes in the young town’s history.
The 270-member Lytton Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians wants to establish a home base, something it has not had since the tribe’s 50-acre rancheria north of Healdsburg was illegally terminated by the federal government in 1958. In the past dozen years, it has used revenues from its East Bay casino to buy up an ever-larger swath of land southwest of Windsor, off Windsor River, Starr and Eastside roads.
That’s where the tribe could build more than 360 homes and a community center on just over 500 acres it hopes to take into federal trust through legislation carried by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. It would add the hotel and a 200,000-case winery if given approval under a future federal environmental review.
A separate deal negotiated with Sonoma County would prohibit a new casino on the land while allowing for the prospect of the tribe’s more than doubling the amount of property it holds in trust - to roughly 1,300 acres - making an even bigger part of Windsor’s outskirts exempt from local land-use restrictions.
Lytton tribal officials say their intent is to create a community for themselves and expand their economic ventures beyond gambling.
Creation of a homeland will allow the tribe to continue to govern itself and “to provide for tribal generations to come,” Tribal Chair Marjie Mejia testified in a congressional subcommittee hearing in June.
But project opponents have decried the increasing scope and potential impact of the development plans, which they note would require the destruction of 1,500 trees. The additional commercial development could deplete local water supplies and bring a huge influx of people and cars to the rural area, opponents say.
They’ve also taken issue with the revenue source enabling the Lytton land deals.
“A lot of the money generated by a casino is money generated through other people’s addictive vices,” said Tami Cordis, a 20-year Windsor resident. “Families are torn apart because of gambling.”
The standoff has become the most closely watched tribal dispute in Sonoma County, coming in the wake of the drawn-out battle over construction of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria’s casino, which opened next to Rohnert Park almost two years ago.
Organized as “Citizens for Windsor,” project opponents have taken out full-page newspaper ads asking the Town Council and mayor to “stop the backroom deals” with the tribe and to consider any agreement with the Lytton Pomos in the open, where members of the public can voice their concerns.
Opponents have gathered more than 1,000 signatures against the project and recently packed a Town Council meeting where they urged city representatives to oppose the pending bill by Huffman that would pave the way for the tribe’s plans.
“Citizens are upset they’re not being heard,” said Eric Wee, a Windsor resident who is spearheading opposition to the Lytton project. “We have a groundswell of outraged citizens who can’t believe they’re being treated this way by elected officials.”
The vocal opposition has put town officials on the defensive and forced them to find a bigger meeting room to accommodate the large crowd expected Tuesday, when the Town Council will hold a 5:30 p.m. public workshop on the plans. It will feature presentations from tribal and Sonoma County officials, Rep. Huffman, opponents of the tribal project, and attorneys familiar with the law and procedures that apply to tribes and projects like the one proposed by the Lyttons.
The town has gone so far as to hire a professional facilitator to help run the meeting and make sure all sides are heard.
“I don’t know that we’ve had a meeting like this in Windsor, ever,” said Town Councilwoman Deb Fudge, who has been in office 19 years.
Town officials estimate up to 300 people will attend tonight’s meeting at the Mary Agatha Furth Center.
“We will clarify a lot of things, questions people have, accusations made. They will get answers to them,” Mayor Bruce Okrepkie said. “I’d rather have that all out there on the table, see what’s going on, and move on from there.”
Windsor’s negotiations with the tribe have focused on a deal that would extend town water and sewer service to an initial 147 homes the tribe wants to build for its members off Windsor River Road, on mostly undeveloped, heavily wooded land stretching to near Eastside Road.
In exchange for obtaining utilities from Windsor, the tribe would pay for construction of a municipal swimming facility in Keiser Park - estimated to cost $9 million to $11 million - along with a payment of $2.5 million to help with pool operations, or other discretionary use.