Lytton Pomo tribe on buying spree in Sonoma County

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A Santa Rosa based Indian tribe is on a land-buying spree, acquiring vineyards, rural homes and even a large redwood-dotted chunk of property near the coast.

Bolstered by revenues from its San Pablo Casino in the East Bay, the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians has made more than a dozen purchases in the past two years in Sonoma County totalling more than $47 million.

County property records detail transactions involving more than 1,300 acres since early 2012, including vineyards and pasture in the Alexander and Russian River Valleys, as well as rugged woodland between Jenner and Cazadero.

A spokesman for the tribe said the acquisitions are mostly investments, or "economic diversification" for the 270-member tribe, although he said the approximate 650 acres of redwood-studded property near the coast represent something more.

"It's a cultural area for the tribe. It's for cultural protection," said Larry Stidham, the attorney who acts as tribal spokesman.

He noted that many of the original settlers of the Lytton Rancheria came from the Kashia Pomo area of the coast.

"For the tribe it's significant. It's near its homeland," he said of the "very rugged, and very steep, mostly ridgeline" land the tribe bought for $1.5 million, according to county records.

He said the tribe's holdings now total "probably close to 2,000 acres" in Sonoma County.

Systematic property acquisitions are nothing new for the tribe, at least in the Windsor area where the Lytton Pomos have acquired "400 acres give or take," according to Stidham's estimates.

The tribe about a dozen years ago began buying up land — much of it densely wooded oak just west of town limits — for a tribal housing project. Its holdings now extend for almost a mile along Windsor River Road to Eastside Road.

The purchases alarmed nearby residents and town officials who feared the possibility of a casino being built, although the tribe has steadfastly maintained it has no plans to build another gaming facility there.

Instead the tribe has a pending application with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to place 124 acres of its Windsor land into federal trust for a reservation, to build 147 homes and a cultural center.

The Lytton tribe was made landless in 1961 when the federal government dissolved its 50-acre Alexander Valley rancheria.

In 2000, Congress authorized a 10-acre reservation for the tribe in San Pablo, where it was allowed to take over a cardroom and convert it to a casino. It generates an estimated $182 million annually, according to estimates from the labor union representing most of the casino employees.

Windsor residents, town and county officials have raised concerns over a myriad of environmental impacts from the housing project. That includes the tribe's intent to build a sewer plant and wastewater treatment plant if Windsor won't allow the preferred option of hooking up to the town municipal utilities.

The tribe's continuing acquisition of more properties in the Windsor area farther away from its planned housing site has at times puzzled observers and worried nearby residents.

The mystery has been deepened by the routine confidentiality agreements the tribe requires of sellers not to disclose the buyers' identity, nor other terms of the purchase.

Tribal spokesman Stidham has explained some of the real estate acquisitions as a way to create more of a buffer around the tribal housing project, or in the case of some vineyard acquisitions as a way to diversify into grape growing.

The tribe's $5.7 million purchase last year of 122 acres at 7590 Starr Road, more than a mile southwest of its proposed housing site, is one that mystified and also worried some nearby residents.

"Everything's hush-hush. They didn't want anyone to know who's doing what," said Sandi Brock, a nearby resident on Starr Road.

Brock, who runs a pet grooming and boarding facility, heard that there were plans for tribal housing, or perhaps a wastewater treatment plant on the Starr Road property.

"Everyone is concerned about what's going on. Nobody knows what to do, or how to go about stopping it," she said, adding that residents fear their property values will go down.

But Stidham said there are no plans for a housing tract, treatment plant, or to add the land to the tribe's trust application, which would make it no longer subject to most state and county land use regulations.

And he reiterated that the tribe has no plans for a casino anywhere it's bought land in Sonoma County.

"There's no intent at this point to put a casino in any of those properties. They're not being purchased for that reason," he said.

But county and Windsor officials have been frustrated by the tribe's unwillingness to agree that it will never pursue a casino locally.

"It's difficult to predict the future," Stidham explained of the tribe's stance. "The tribe has a casino running well in San Pablo. If something happens to that, they want to maintain options. Who knows what the future holds in that situation?"

He said the Starr Road property was simply seen as a good investment when it came up for sale. It has seven acres of valuable century-old olive trees, two residences and the potential for 88 acres of premium vineyard planting, according to the real estate listing.

"It was a good deal. It made economic sense. That property was fairly priced," he said, adding that the two homes have been fixed up, painted and rented out.

Stidham acknowledged that the tribe has paid high, premium prices on some of the property it bought in and around the site of its proposed housing project, but said the big purchases have been consistent with appraised value.

In other recent acquisitions, the tribe has continued to add vineyards to its holdings, including the 120-acre Jimtown Ranch along Highway 128 in Alexander Valley that it bought in October for $8.4 million, according to county records.

"It's to grow grapes and sell those grapes," he said of the intent of the tribe, which last year bought about 300 acres vineyards off Lytton Station Road and Hassett Lane for $13.3 million from Jordan Winery's JVW Corp.

Since then it has added more vineyards and pasture acreage in the vicinity, as well as buying grape-growing properties and homes on Eastside Road between Windsor and Healdsburg.

In all, Stidham said the tribe now has about 500 acres in grapes, most of which are under contract to be sold to winemakers.

The purchase of about 650 acres near the Sonoma Coast is probably the most diverse yet for the Lytton Pomos.

The Kidd Creek acquisition, as it's dubbed, is named for the creek that flows into Austin Creek watershed and the Russian River. It abuts the 5,630 acre Jenner Headlands, purchased by 10 different funding partners in 2009, in the largest single conservation land acquisition in Sonoma County to date.

Stidham said it has lots of ravines and is undevelopable, but contains some Indian cultural resources, which he declined to elaborate on.

Officials with Sonoma Land Trust, who oversee the Jenner Headlands, said the property the tribe bought has been on the market for a long time.

"We're looking forward to them being good neighbors," said Ralph Benson, executive director of Sonoma Land Trust. "I don't think there's anything to be alarmed about."

(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or

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