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Rohnert Park seeks funding for homeless housing project near Graton casino

Over objections from operators of the Graton Resort and Casino and two nearby hotels, Rohnert Park City Council members this week voted to seek financing for a homeless housing project on a parcel of vacant city land less than a mile south of the resort and gambling hall.

The council voted 4-1, with Susan Hollingsworth Adams the lone no vote, to seek as much as $20 million from the state’s Project Homekey program to build and manage a 60-unit interim housing project next to a city fire station at 6020 Labath Ave.

The project would be Rohnert Park’s first effort to house some of the estimated 250 homeless residents of Sonoma County’s third-largest city — a number that has increased fivefold since 2015 and has risen to the top of residents’ list of issues they’ve told the city they want addressed.

Because court rulings prevent municipalities from clearing out homeless encampments unless they are able to offer alternative shelter, Rohnert Park has struggled to enforce anti-camping and other laws designed to curb problems associated with the encampments.

A large camp near Roberts Lake that grew to several dozen people and tents last month has highlighted the city’s homeless problem and its lack of options.

But a $1.45 billion pot of state and federal money earmarked to help cities manage their unsheltered populations has given the city an opportunity to apply for $20 million to build a tiny-home project similar to one at Los Guilicos east of Santa Rosa.

The city considered several properties for a Homekey project, including buying two hotels to house the homeless, but narrowed their choice to two: a narrow strip of land south of Rohnert Park Expressway near Rancho Verde Mobile Home Park and the Labath site. Initially the city preferred the expressway site, but last week shifted to Labath because its environmental review would be simpler and it would offer more space for parking and storage units.

The chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria has written multiple letters or emails to city leaders objecting to either of those sites, both within a mile of the casino.

Tribal Chair Greg Sarris accused Mayor Gerard Giudice of misrepresenting his support of the city’s site selection and reinforced that the casino has given over $75 million to the city since it opened in 2013.

Giudice read comments at the meeting saying he had not intended to misrepresent anyone’s viewpoint and that he hopes to continue the city’s good working relationship with the casino.

Sarris’ letter and emails said the tribe supports the city’s efforts to house the unsheltered, but not near the casino.

“While the tribe supports finding a solution for homelessness and is willing to do its part to assist, homeless people have created an ongoing problem at Graton Resort & Casino,” Sarris wrote to Giudice, saying he was “furious” at Giudice’s description of Sarris’ support, which Sarris said implied the tribe supported the expressway site.

“Unhoused people come in for free hot cocoa, taking food left on tables by patrons in our marketplace and creating a nuisance. Housing a large number of the homeless at the Rohnert Park Expressway site could extend this problem for the long term, interfering with casino patrons and affecting the well-being of the business that, more than any other, helps keep the city of Rohnert Park solvent.”

Sarris even sent a lawyer from the tribe’s Oakland law firm to Tuesday’s council meeting to read additional comments into the public record.

“Let me make it clear that the tribe rejects the recommendation of staff to locate the project on these two sites that are west of the freeway and close to the casino,” Simon Gertler read from a letter he said was from Sarris.

“Graton Resort and Casino is the largest business in Rohnert Park, and the jobs it sustains and the tribe’s generous ongoing payments to the city are an important part of the economic health of the city,” Gertler read.

Sarris said the tribe wanted “respectful consultation” about a homeless housing project, which Adams echoed about the tribe and other nearby business owners, who said Tuesday they only learned Friday about the Labath site.

The Cambria Hotel Sonoma Wine Country and the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott sit within eyesight of the Labath site. Managers from both properties objected Tuesday to a homeless-serving housing project near their hotels, adding that both are relatively new and provide overnight-stay taxes to the city.

City Manager Darrin Jenkins said the Homekey grant money is first-come, first-served for applications that are chosen. He urged the council to approve the application and commit to operating the interim housing project if the city wins funding.

Giudice and council members Pam Stafford, Willy Linares and Jackie Elward voted to go ahead. Adams said she would like to delay the decision until speaking with Sarris and the other nearby business operators.

Jenkins said the state may decide which projects to approve in the next couple of months.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

Lori A. Carter

 Sonoma County courts and Rohnert Park, The Press Democrat

Local journalism is vital to a community's wellbeing, and that means keeping an eye on what happens in our justice system and our communities. I cover Sonoma County courts, as well as the city of Rohnert Park. In my work, I want to share the stories that affect our daily lives and, yes, maybe even rile us up. 

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