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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.

The negotiations stem from a widely held view on the part of Windsor officials that the Lytton project is bound to gain approval from the federal government. That step would bypass local governments by placing the land into federal trust, making tribal property exempt from local land-use guidelines, which allow for only a fraction of the homes the tribe wants to build.

Project opponents dispute the development is a done deal, but county officials, who once opposed the tribe’s plans, say there was little realistic chance of stopping it after it passed a 2012 federal review.

Opponents mistakenly believe the Town Council can halt the project, Councilwoman Fudge said.

“They think we have power that we know we don’t have,” she said. “We need to explain that to them.”

What Windsor officials say they can control is whether to extend utilities to the proposed tribal dwellings and community center and what the town gets in return for that service. Voters will have the final say over any deal.

The Lyttons say that, if necessary, they can build their own small sewer plant to serve the project. The tribe also recently dropped its request to tap into Windsor’s water supply, apparently recognizing that the prolonged drought and ongoing conservation efforts might make for a tough sell. Instead, the tribe said it can drill its own wells.

The tribe is still seeking to hook into the town’s wastewater system, a proposal the Lytton Pomos hope to put on the ballot next year for Windsor voters to consider.

The Lytton housing project is part of a stalled application the tribe filed six years ago with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take 124 acres it owns into federal trust, akin to a reservation.

Opponents say the tribe is not one of those that can legally establish a reservation. They have seized on a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in Carcieri v. Salazar, that basically said tribes that were not under federal jurisdiction prior to 1934, such as the Lytton Pomos, could not have land taken into trust.

But there have been several legislative proposals, including one introduced last month by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., that would restore the secretary of the interior’s authority to take land into trust for all federally recognized tribes.

An op-ed piece that ran last week in the Windsor Times, submitted by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and signed by Chairwoman Susan Gorin, suggested that action by Congress relatively soon would allow the Bureau of Indian Affairs to continue to take Indian lands into trust.

Seeing such moves, county officials sought a guarantee that the tribe would not build another casino in the Windsor area. The tribe owns the San Pablo Lytton Casino.

After lengthy negotiations, the Board of Supervisors in March approved a 22-year agreement with the tribe that assured there would be no casino nor gambling of any kind, along with various concessions including a $6.1 million payment from the Lyttons to offset impacts to county roads, parks and woodlands.

But the tribal-county agreement, unveiled days before it was approved by supervisors, also revealed much broader ambitions on the part of the Lyttons, including plans for a hotel resort and winery. The commercial ventures would be located potentially on any of a half-dozen parcels the tribe owns that are accessed from Eastside or Starr roads, south of where the housing is planned.

The county agreed not to oppose the planned tribal housing and community center on Windsor’s western boundary, and to support expansion of the proposed tribal lands to as many as 1,300 acres, with inclusion of a resort and winery, subject to federal environmental review.

Huffman introduced his legislation in May, seeking to have 511 acres taken into trust for the tribe and a perpetual prohibition on a casino on the land. The bill has gained support from Gov. Jerry Brown and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena.

Critics assailed Huffman for delivering the tribe’s wishes “on a silver platter,” but the North Coast congressman said his bill provides a greater measure of certainty over what can be built on the tribal land and how impacts will be addressed than allowing the Bureau of Indian Affairs to carry out its own reservation-making process.

“The tribe has worked very hard to reach agreements and address potential concerns from its neighbors and local governments,” Huffman said at a congressional subcommittee hearing in June when his bill was discussed.

He noted that the Lyttons struck million-dollar-plus agreements with the local fire district and school district, for example, to pay for increased emergency-response and education needs resulting from their housing project.

“I’m very thankful for those efforts,” he said. “An agreement that works for all affected parties is far preferable to everyone involved than the black box of the (Bureau of Indian Affairs) process.”

Mejia, the Lytton chairwoman, said the tribe has sought to work with local governments at the negotiating table.

“It was important because we want to be good neighbors,” she said at the congressional hearing in June. “We don’t want to be in a community where we’re not wanted and we are a burden.”

Mejia said the agreements also give the local community assurance that tribal members will be productive citizens.

“It’s a mutual respect and a win-win situation for everyone,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @clarkmas.

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