Lytton Pomos shelve ballot measure, fueling concerns over development plans

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The Lytton Band of Pomo Indians this week began clearing ground and demolishing buildings to pave the way for their controversial Windsor tribal housing project, even though the tribe has yet to obtain federal approval for a reservation.

A tribal spokesman said they are confident the government will sanction their proposed homeland and they want to move as quickly as possible to begin construction on their $180 million project on the heavily wooded site they own on Windsor’s western boundary.

At the same time, the Lytton Pomos are delaying plans to seek voter approval to hook up to town utilities, and say it is just as likely they will drill wells and build their own sewer plant on property they own behind a residential subdivision.

Windsor officials expressed concern about the potential shift in the tribe’s plans for obtaining sewer and water. For the past five years, the tribe has been moving toward asking Windsor voters to approve a ballot measure that would extend town utilities to their project in exchange for a “community benefit” the Lyttons would provide — building a long-sought swimming complex for the town.

But tribal spokesman and attorney Larry Stidham said this week the tribe has made no decision which option it will choose for water and sewer service to its planned 147 homes and is further exploring the possibility of building a sewer plant behind the Deer Creek subdivision.

“We’re trying to get a better gauge of the costs and size of the packet plant,” he said of the relatively small sewage treatment facility and holding ponds that could be built in a meadow, on land the tribe acquired next to the upper middle-class housing tract on the town’s western edge.

Windsor officials expressed some dismay over the apparent change of direction by the tribe, noting that the town has been working with them to facilitate the extension of municipal utilities, the environmentally preferable alternative.

A federal environmental review launched in 2009 determined that it was much better than having the tribe build and operate its own plant and discharge the treated effluent into a ditch that flows to an old gravel pond adjacent to the Russian River. That option was protested at the time by Windsor officials who cited its effect on endangered fish and proximity to the town’s drinking water wells.

“It’s concerning to me,” said Town Manager Linda Kelly. “Our understanding all along was the tribe has wanted to be a good neighbor to the town and Deer Creek after being on that path for five years.”

The Lytton project has been the subject of periodic news coverage for more than a dozen years, but exploded into one of the hottest topics in the town’s relatively young history last year as residents packed meetings, mostly to object to the willingness of Windsor and Sonoma County officials, as well as Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, to negotiate and strike agreements with the tribe.

The Lytton Pomos have used profits from their San Pablo Casino in the East Bay to steadily acquire property around Windsor and other parts of Sonoma County. They need to get their Windsor land placed into federal trust for a reservation if they want to build their tribal housing project, community center and tribal retreat.

The homeland, if approved, would no longer be subject to county zoning and restrictive rural density guidelines. An application has been pending for more than seven years with the slow-moving Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Last year Huffman introduced legislation that would instead create the reservation through an act of Congress, on the condition the tribe not build a casino in Sonoma County.

The legislation, which still needs to be voted on in the House of Representatives and Senate, would enable the tribe to create a homeland on more than 500 acres it owns mostly southwest of Windsor. The bill is tied to an agreement the tribe struck with Sonoma County that forbids a casino, but allows up to 360 homes, a large winery and 200-room resort hotel.

Stidham, the tribal spokesman, said the tribe is concentrating on building a first phase of 147 homes for its members, including senior housing, on about 90 acres on the south side of Windsor River Road. The tribe numbers approximately 280 adults.

He said the estimated $20 million cost of building a sewer plant could still be less expensive than building the $10-to-$12 million municipal swimming complex, ponying up $2.5 million for pool maintenance and almost $6 million in hook-up fees and infrastructure improvements for sewer and water service.

“I suspect doing it ourselves is cheaper,” Stidham said of foregoing town utilities.

Councilman Bruce Okrepkie said he was puzzled by the tribe’s position, because the Bureau of Indian Affairs agreed it was in the Pomos’ best interest to work with the town to get utilities.

“Why do we need another sewer plant out there if we have the capacity and they can utilize our capacity?” he said.

While Mayor Mark Millan said he was surprised the tribe has not pursued voter approval for municipal water and sewer service, Okrepkie said he was troubled by the apparent move to forgo that option. Voter approval would be needed for the extension because almost all the tribe’s land is outside Windsor’s urban growth boundary.

Tribal representatives had offered to build a swimming complex in Keiser Park — a long-established goal for the town — if voters approved the ballot measure.

“All along they said they would do the community benefit and provide a pool, and then they renege?” Okrepkie said.

Opponents of the tribal housing project maintain that the tribe knows it cannot get the blessing it needs from Windsor voters if it wants town utilities. A public opinion poll they conducted last year demonstrated that opposition, they said, and that’s why the Lyttons are looking more closely at building their own plant.

Stidham, however, said the tribe has done its own research that shows Windsor residents would support the concept once it’s adequately explained.

But opponents contend the project is already starting off on the wrong foot, especially if the tribe aims to begin by demolishing more than a half-dozen homes in the next two months and cut down more than 1,500 blue oaks at a later date.

“It heightens part of what’s at stake,” said Windsor resident Eric Wee, who is spearheading the opposition to the tribal project. “That’s why the people of Windsor need to fight this.”

He said if Huffman’s bill goes through, the tribe can “blackmail the town and its residents. They can say the land is in trust. ‘Give us the water and sewer or we build sewage plants and we’ll sweeten the deal with the (swimming) pool.’ ”

A year ago when details of the tribe-financed aquatics complex were unveiled at a Windsor Park and Recreation meeting, it was greeted with enthusiasm by potential users. The conceptual plan included a 30-meter-long competition pool with 10 lanes that also could accommodate water polo, and a large recreational pool with a water slide and two lap lanes. In addition to solar heating, there was a proposed snack bar, bathrooms, picnic tables and barbecues, a community room available to rent for parties, and a 50-space parking lot.

Losing that amenity would not be in the best interests of Windsor and families who have been looking forward to it, said Okrepkie.

Councilwoman Deb Fudge believes the tribe “could be hedging its bets,” by engineering its project both ways, depending on whether it can or cannot get town utilities.

“It’s a smart business move on their part,” she said.

She said that if the tribe has its own plant, the wastewater would not be treated to the same advanced level as Windsor’s.

Ultimately, she anticipates the tribe “will ask the town to hook up to water and sewer, because it’s environmentally superior.”

“The tribe wants to be a part of the community and a good neighbor,” Fudge said. “Their reputation with us seems to be extremely important.”

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

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