Huffman adds new barriers to casino in Lytton bill

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A congressional bill that provides protection against the prospect of another Indian casino in Sonoma County could be on its way to a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives, after its author expanded the prohibition on gaming.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said Friday that his bill creating a homeland for the Lytton Pomo tribe adjacent to Windsor would provide “bulletproof” protection against gaming, if it passes.

He said it not only mirrors Sonoma County’s agreement with the tribe not to build a casino anywhere in the county for 22 years, but includes an additional permanent prohibition against gaming north of Highway 12, or essentially from Santa Rosa to the Mendocino County line.

Huffman’s bill, supported by the tribe and county officials, won unanimous approval last week from the House Natural Resources Committee, the step before a possible vote by the full House of Representatives.

So far, it has had smooth early sailing in Washington. In a meeting with The Press Democrat Editorial Board on Friday, Huffman expressed optimism that his bill will get crucial backing from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, an opponent of urban casinos, if it makes it to the Senate.

Huffman’s bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and is also supported by Gov. Jerry Brown.

But the bill continues to meet resistance from a number of Windsor residents who see it as facilitating controversial Lytton Pomo plans to place up to 511 acres of land southwest of town into federal trust and build as many as 360 homes, a 200-room resort hotel and a 200,000-case winery.

Some opponents of Huffman’s legislation, HR 2538, claim the concern for a casino is “a red herring,” because the tribe has steadfastly said for more than a decade that it has no plans to build one on land it’s acquired in Sonoma County, made possible by proceeds from its lucrative San Pablo Casino in the East Bay.

Despite the tribe’s assurance that it has no intent for gaming in Windsor, Huffman said “when you get a SMART train running up and down Highway 101, and it becomes easy for folks to reach any casino on the highway, I continue to worry that even folks from farther south and the Bay Area might choose to go there.”

He said he takes the tribe at its word that it’s not pursuing another casino now, but “if things change in the future, why wouldn’t they build a casino, if there’s no limitation or protection? Tribes are always interested in economic development. Who could blame them if there was no prohibition?”

The county and Lytton Rancheria signed a memorandum last March that allows for the tribe to build housing for tribal members — once its land goes into federal trust — along with a hotel and winery. In talks with neighbors, the tribe has shown a willingness to reduce the size of the resort and winery.

The agreement with the county also calls for the tribe to pay the county $6.1 million for one-time impacts, such as to roads, parks and woodlands. In addition to not building a casino for 22 years — the length of the agreement — the county negotiated a number of other provisions, such as complying with the general plan throughout most of the property, authorizing a neutral arbitrator to resolve disputes regarding off-reservation environmental impacts, and a waiver of sovereign immunity to enforce the agreement.

But mindful that the Bureau of Indian Affairs could invalidate all or parts of the agreement and still approve a reservation, the county and the tribe asked Huffman to sponsor a congressional bill with an ironclad guarantee of no casino.

Huffman said creating a reservation through an act of Congress is preferable to doing it through administrative approval by Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has had the Lytton application for a reservation pending for seven years.

Huffman and county and Windsor officials believe it is only a matter of time before the slow-moving BIA approves the Lytton project, and it could speed up now that the U.S. Department of the Interior has said the Obama administration wants to create another 200,000 acres of Indian lands before the president leaves office.

But Huffman said the Bureau of Indian Affairs won’t be sympathetic to the agreement struck between the tribe and the county to prevent gaming, something that is seen as generally working against the economic interests of a tribe.

“The BIA’s job is to be a trust agency for Indians, to consider the best interests of the tribe,” he said. “They’re very narrowly focused. That’s why everyone has said these BIA decisions invariably favored the tribe.”

He acknowledges a sense of urgency to have his legislation passed to preserve all the points negotiated between the tribe and county.

Cheryl Schmit, a casino opponent and director of Stand Up For California, said Friday that Huffman’s bill is “a good idea.”

The county’s “Memorandum of Agreement” with the tribe may be enforceable in and of itself, she said, but putting it into federal legislation safeguards it.

“It protects Sonoma County going to court and not being successful, if for any reason in the future there is a challenge to the MOA. Having it in this federal statute with a limit on gaming protects the county,” she said.

Eric Wee, a former journalist and Web entrepreneur who is spearheading opposition to the Lytton project, said his group, Citizens for Windsor, has collected more than 2,000 signatures against Huffman’s bill. They’ve sent e-mail blasts to congressional representatives to register their staunch opposition.

Huffman believes the initial resistance to his bill from many Windsor residents has softened. But he acknowledges a “critical mass of neighbors is opposed.”

“They don’t like the fact that there would be this sovereign land right in their backyard that would not be subject to all the same rules — taxation and other things that they are — they think that’s unfair and maybe it is,” Huffman said. “But the reality is that the Lyttons almost certainly qualify for trust status, based on everything we know.”

Wee also questions the influence of political contributions made by the Lytton Rancheria to various politicians including Gov. Brown, as well a $43,400 contribution the tribe made in December to the “Denham Victory Fund,” linked to Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, a co-author of Huffman’s bill, who also sits on the Natural Resources Committee.

“It’s clearly pay-to-play,” Wee asserted. “The Lyttons are trying to buy their way through Congress.”

A spokeswoman for Denham said in an e-mail Friday that he was “unavailable for comment on this one.”

Huffman said “I don’t think all of this has been purchased by anyone.”

He said there are some pretty obvious reasons his legislation is needed to protect the community, “although some don’t see it that way.”

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

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