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Sonoma County supervisors amend Lytton Rancheria deal to include permanent ban on gaming

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Sonoma County supervisors signed off on a deal with the Lytton Rancheria on Tuesday, ensuring the tribe won’t ever build a casino in the area should Congress agree to turn a swath of land outside Windsor into a reservation.

Under the amended agreement approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors, the tribe is prohibited from conducting any gambling activities on the roughly 500 acres where it’s looking to build housing — and possibly a hotel and winery — or anywhere else in the county.

The proposed development west of Windsor has for years proven highly controversial among some residents who have voiced concerns over the impacts the project could have on traffic, as well as the process by which it’s coming to fruition.

But supervisors cast Tuesday’s deal as a win for the county, addressing constituents’ desires to limit gambling despite the complexities involved with the tribe’s sovereign rights and federal law.

The amendment provoked passionate commentary from supervisors and community members alike.

“The amendment is to extend prohibition of gaming countywide in perpetuity,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said. “That is pretty damn good and that’s why we’re here today.”

Windsor resident Peg Champion was one of several who objected to the amendment Tuesday. She asked supervisors to hold off on a deal for at least two months, voicing “extreme displeasure with the way this has been handled” and calling the process a “violation of trust.”

“I appeal to your sense of fairness,” she told the board. “Your constituents deserve open deliberations about agreements that you’re negotiating with a sovereign nation — agreements that will forever alter our county, our community and our lives.”

The original 2015 agreement between the Lytton Rancheria and the county included a provision that the tribe wouldn’t engage in any gaming activity for 22 years. Supervisors amended the agreement Tuesday, making the tribe’s countywide gaming restriction permanent.

The county moved the deal forward as Congress continues considering legislation that would grant the tribe about 500 acres near Windsor as a reservation. Legislation has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is now being considered by the Senate.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris of California have agreed to let the legislation move to the Senate floor, although a vote hasn’t been scheduled, yet.

The federal legislation “recognizes and protects the validity” of the county’s own agreement with the tribe, thereby preventing that deal from being challenged at a later date by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to county staff.

“You get a permanent gaming ban in Sonoma County — I think the senators looked at that as a plus for you. We certainly look at that as a plus for you,” said Larry Stidham, an attorney for the tribe. “This is a good agreement. It works for the county. It works for the tribe.”

The tribe wants to develop 147 homes on the site and reserves the right to build a resort with as many as 200 hotel rooms and a winery that could produce as much as 200,000 cases a year, Stidham said. But the resort and winery wouldn’t be part of the initial development, he said.

Still, impassioned critics said the county didn’t get enough public input before amending the Lytton deal.

“We, as your constituents, are all for amending this (agreement),” said Eric Wee, a founder of the group Citizens for Windsor, which opposes the Lytton project. “But let’s do that in the light of day with proper time and consideration for the public to examine and debate this.”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who joined the board in 2017, said past community engagement on the three-year-old Lytton agreement was “inadequate and at times nonexistent.” But she said supervisors Tuesday were faced with a narrow decision “between a stronger agreement and a weaker agreement.”

“I feel very strongly that we do not need more casinos in Sonoma County,” she said, arguing the deal closes off “at least one of the potential ways that could happen.”

Some who commented suggested the county favored the tribe or worked too closely with it behind closed doors — points which didn’t appear to sit well with Supervisor James Gore, whose district includes the Lytton site.

“Thanks for the glares again, but to tell you the truth, I’m confident in my integrity,” Gore said, turning toward a crowd of opponents, including Champion. “I’m a good man and this is a fair assessment of an independent area.”

Windsor leaders early last year decided not to oppose the reservation and tribal housing project. Mayor Bruce Okrepkie told supervisors Tuesday he hoped the tribe would connect to the town’s water and sewer systems, as opposed to creating its own, should its plans clear the Senate.

Councilwoman Deb Fudge said the gaming restrictions in the amendment would address “the concerns of a majority of Windsor residents.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com.

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