Wild Lands Take a Hit

Finding Sonoma County’s River Rock Casino from Highway 101 isn’t easy. Dry Creek Rancheria, the Pomo Indian reservation on which River Rock is sited, hangs high on a hill on the west side of bucolic Alexander Valley, overlooking vineyards and oak trees.

To reach the casino, you exit at the small town of Geyserville, where signs that once pointed the way to the rancheria have been spray-painted over by casino opponents. Would-be gamblers, if they’re not aboard one of the many shuttle buses that operate daily from points around the Bay Area, must take their chances finding the turn-off from Highway 128, which curves between vineyards and the steep hillside. For those who become lost, the “No Casino Here, Keep Out” signs are a clue that they’ve pulled into the wrong driveway.

Patrons are directed by uniformed guards up a narrow and winding access road to the casino—a giant tent-like structure of extruded aluminum trusses—where valet parking attendants greet them to the blast of ’80s music over the loudspeaker (think “West End Girls”). Beyond the parking lot, the construction equipment, and the caution tape, the hazy green valley spreads out in the distance, a classic Northern California vista.

But once you step inside the casino, daylight disappears, cigarette smoke wafts though the air, and the jangling digital tune of hundreds of glowing slot machines never ends. In spite of the tastefully lit reed baskets and the rooms with names like “Wine Creek” and “Warm Springs,” the casino feels as if it could be anywhere on earth, at any time of day or night. Many of the tribe’s wine country neighbors wish the casino were, in fact, anywhere else.

When California voters approved Proposition 1A in March 2000, amending the state constitution to allow certain types of gambling on tribal lands and authorizing gaming compacts that then-governor Gray Davis had signed with 58 tribes in 1999, the two-thirds majority probably wasn’t expecting the surge in tribal casino development that has taken place over the last four years. “I don’t think people around the state really fully appreciated the impact those propositions would have,” says Bruce Goldstein, deputy counsel for Sonoma County. “I don’t think that people realize—I certainly didn’t—that this is going to change the face of California, if it hasn’t already.”

Now with more than fifty tribal casinos in the state, California is rapidly becoming a gambling mecca and, in Sacramento, political points seem to be scored and lost every day over Indian gaming. (And, as the controversy over a proposal for 2,500 slots in urban Casino San Pablo demonstrates, those points can be won one day, gone the next.)

Casinos have brought wealth and power to some tribes, but they’ve also brought frustration to local governments and neighbors who have to deal with the side effects of gaming development. Because tribes are sovereign nations, they are subject to federal regulations, but generally not to state or local laws, and are exempt from local planning and zoning rules. Tribal sovereignty, coupled with weak protections for local and environmental interests in the original compacts, has meant that large casino developments are sprouting up in unexpected places—often to the dismay of the surrounding community. Because most tribal lands are in outlying areas, recently built casinos are bringing traffic and development to oak-studded wildland and open space buffer zones.

In Sonoma County, home to five federally recognized Indian tribes, two tribal casino projects—River Rock near rural Geyserville and a proposed development outside suburban Rohnert Park—illustrate the unique complications that dealing with tribal officials has brought to local governments. One tribe has resisted working with county staff while the other has reached out, only to be rebuffed. In both situations, the respective communities are going through some serious growing pains over the casino in their backyard.

The Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians announced its intention to build a casino in March 2000, only three days after California voters passed Prop 1A. Local reaction to the casino plan in the Alexander Valley was, to say the least, not enthusiastic. The Rancheria is on a steep, wooded hillside in this sophisticated grape-growing community—not high-roller territory, unless you’re talking wine auctions and tasting rooms.

When the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted to oppose the project, saying that the casino was not in the county’s general plan since the area was zoned only for agricultural use, the supes quickly learned that there wasn’t much legal ground for a challenge, and that the board’s voice held little weight on tribal land. The tribe’s gaming compact, like the rest of those signed with Governor Davis, only minimally required working with the community or local government. Sonoma County deputy counsel Bruce Goldstein says, “The environmental protections in those compacts are just horrible—essentially nonexistent.” Because the compacts required so little of the tribe—and because it wanted to build on its own land—the complaints of neighbors and issues of planning, zoning, land-use, safety, and environmental regulation became irrelevant. Casino construction began over continuing local objections.

“They just built it in defiance of everyone,” says Candy Cadd, whose family has lived on and farmed land next to the Dry Creek Rancheria for eighty years. In 1965, Cadd’s grandmother sold the federal government a road easement that winds through the Cadds’ property up to the rancheria—for the princely sum of $1. Now, Cadd says bitterly, there are “five, eight thousand cars a day going through our property, which used to be quiet and peaceful.”

The Dry Creek tribe rapidly gained a reputation for its unwillingness to work with local authorities. Goldstein calls River Rock “the poster child for what shouldn’t happen” with casino development. In October 2002, shortly after the casino opened, the tribe became embroiled in a still-active lawsuit with the county fire chief, who maintains that the narrow access road isn’t adequate for emergency vehicles. The tribe has since told county officials that it doesn’t want them on the rancheria.

There have been allegations that runoff from construction is damaging a nearby stream used by steelhead trout. Steep grading and the removal of native trees have raised concern about landslides on the hill. Driving on once-quiet Highway 128 has become scary, claim some residents. Cadd says she has seen tribal employees illegally directing traffic on the public road.

In July, the tribe opened part of a huge seven-story parking structure—which, when complete, will be the largest in Sonoma County. The garage wasn’t in the original plan for the casino, and the tribe repeatedly denied that it was building the structure, even though construction could be seen on the open hillside from across the valley.

Cadd, who is vice president of the Alexander Valley Association, a group of several hundred homeowners that has tried to battle the casino, says, “We tried to negotiate with the tribe to try to mitigate some of the impacts. They said it’s their right to do what they’re doing and they’re going to go ahead with their casino whether we like it or not.” For the most part, the tribe is correct: it is their right.

The wording of the 1999 compacts put most local governments and community groups “out of the loop,” says Yolo County Supervisor Mike McGowan. McGowan has become an expert on state Indian gaming issues after working out a successful deal between his county and the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians, who run Cache Creek Casino in Brooks. “For us, the shock that we just weren’t in control was pretty big, so I suspect some of my fellow counties have gone through the same period of enlightenment,” says McGowan.

When the 1999 compacts were drafted—virtually in secret—between the Davis administration and the tribes, the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) repeatedly requested that the tribes be held to environmental standards set out by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The association received no response from the Davis administration. CSAC analysts knew they had a problem on their hands when they read the section in the compacts that addressed off-reservation environmental impacts. The tribes were required to make a “good faith effort” to “incorporate the policies and purposes of the National Environmental Policy Act and the California Environmental Quality Act consistent with the Tribe’s governmental interests.” That language, says Bruce Goldstein, is “basically meaningless, in part because the only parties that can enforce that agreement are the state and the tribe.” In spite of requests by local governments across California, the state has never undertaken a single “enforcement action”.

“While there is some consultation requirement under the compact, there’s no enforcement mechanism,” says Goldstein. “And the state, particularly during the Davis administration, was basically deaf to the concerns of the counties.”

The language of the original compacts meant that the tribes were authorized to build large-scale developments with little to no environmental oversight. If cities or counties wanted to have any influence on casino developments, it would be the tribes’ decision whether or not to listen.

That sounds like just the sort of thing that would have environmental activists howling—imagine if the governor had negotiated secret deals with 58 corporations allowing them to circumvent local planning laws. But there was nary a peep from the environmental community when Prop 1A went to a vote. “It just wasn’t on their radar screens,” says DeAnn Baker, a legislative representative for CSAC who has been observing state-tribal gaming negotiations since the 1990s.

It wasn’t until tribes starting building new facilities after 2000 that Sierra Club members began articulating their concerns. In the past, says Bill Allayaud, state legislative director for Sierra Club California, “Tribes have not been given a fair shake” on environmental issues affecting reservations. But now, the casinos they’re building have, in effect, “become a development.” And a development not bound to local restrictions can be dangerous, as Sonoma County officials found out.

Cadd says her group tried to get the backing of environmental groups, including the Bay Area’s Greenbelt Alliance, to help fight River Rock—or at least to help get the state to look into some of the allegations against the tribe. Jeremy Madsen, Greenbelt Alliance’s field director, says the group did not want to get involved with River Rock because there was “no lever for success.” With the tribe exempt from so many important planning and environmental laws, involvement with the Dry Creek Rancheria “could have been a black hole,” says Madsen. Cadd laughs at this description, saying emphatically, “It is a black hole!”

“We get a lot of ‘Well, it’s there. Why are you still beating your head against the wall?’ Well, just because it’s there doesn’t make it right,” says Cadd.

The situation is very different with another Sonoma County tribe. The Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria are made up of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomos who lost their federal recognition in the 1950s when 38 California rancherias were dissolved by Congress, stripping members of their tribal status in what is now seen as a misguided attempt to integrate them into “mainstream” society. In the 1990s, tribal chair Greg Sarris, with the help of Representative Lynn Woolsey, successfully lobbied Congress to regain federal recognition for the tribe. He testified that the tribe had no interest in opening a casino, and Woolsey’s bill specifically forbade gaming. The final language of the 2000 Graton Rancheria Restoration Act, however, did not prevent the tribe from pursuing a casino—and the act exempted the tribe from rigorous environmental review when it came to putting land into trust for a casino.

In April 2003, to Woolsey’s surprise, the tribe announced that it was partnering with Station Casinos, Inc.—a Las Vegas gambling company that is partner with the United Auburn Indian Community in the lucrative Thunder Valley casino near Sacramento—to pursue gaming. The tribe had purchased and optioned almost 2,000 acres near Sears Point overlooking San Pablo Bay, in a sensitive wetland. The land would have to be put into trust by the Interior Department, and the tribe would have to sign a gaming compact with the governor before it could start work on a casino.

The Graton Rancheria bayfront proposal sent up a red flag to environmentalists. In June 2003, the tribe held three community meetings with mostly hostile audiences. Within days, the city councils from five nearby communities and the supervisors of Marin, Napa, and Sonoma counties had voted to oppose the casino. Then, surprising tribal casino observers and delighting wetlands advocates, the tribe announced that it was looking instead at 360 acres of land northwest of Rohnert Park. Tribal chair Sarris also said the tribe would donate the options on 1,700 acres of the original site, worth $4.2 million, to Sonoma Land Trust for open space preservation.

Sarris says that it was out of respect for the arguments that environmentalists presented, particularly those of the Bay Institute’s Mark Holmes, that the tribe chose to seek a new site. “This really needs to be open space,” says Sarris of the bayfront land. The tribe has been commended by environmentalists and some local leaders for its willingness to work with the community. Bruce Goldstein says, in comparison to the Dry Creek Rancheria, “They’re worlds apart.”

But, not surprisingly, the possibility of a casino being built near Rohnert Park has created a furor. In October 2003, Rohnert Park city councilmembers signed a revenue-sharing deal with the Graton Rancheria that would give the city $200 million to offset casino impacts in exchange for the council’s support. Councilmembers defended the controversial agreement by pointing out other developments like River Rock, where a casino went in over objections and the community received nothing. It was a choice, they said, of getting something or getting nothing. But critics said the council was bowing to casino interests, and recall papers were delivered to two councilmembers who were strong supporters of the deal.

The campaign—the most expensive in Rohnert Park history—culminated on August 24 when voters rejected the recall by a ten-point margin. Mayor Armando Flores, a target of the recall effort, said voters came to understand that “By law the tribe as a sovereign nation has no responsibility to work with their neighbors. They don’t have to share revenue&We’re very grateful that they were good neighbors to the city of Rohnert Park.”

Unlike the Rohnert Park city council, which got what Bruce Goldstein calls “a pretty rich deal,” the County Board of Supervisors rejected the Graton Rancheria tribe’s offers to enter into any mitigation agreement. Goldstein says, “Part of the problem is that whenever a body enters into an [agreement with a tribe], the public sees it as approval of the project.”

The board, says Goldstein, may have been looking to the results of the recall before entering into an agreement, but it is also awaiting the results of an environmental impact survey the tribe has undertaken. In an effort to head off criticism, the tribe voluntarily began a federal environmental review. The tribe’s plan to build a 300-room hotel and a 1,900-slot casino, along with a theater and spa, would unquestionably alter the character of the area, and the site also hosts a complicated set of environmental concerns. The land is zoned for agricultural use and is in what’s considered by Sonoma County’s general plan as a “community separator,” outside Rohnert Park’s urban growth boundary (UGB)—so it’s not technically “open space.”

When I visited the huge, airy field on a hot day in July, it was impossible to imagine even a “tasteful” casino development sprawling over the golden expanse. Having just been at River Rock, where the land is so clearly scarred, I had seen in action what locals feared was coming to Rohnert Park.

Peter Ashcroft, chair of the Sonoma Group chapter of the Sierra Club, says, “Sonoma County has been pretty good about keeping development inside urban growth boundaries—city-centered growth. It hasn’t been flawless, there have been mistakes, but by and large, people have at least said that that’s an ideal we’re trying to aspire to.” The casino proposal, says Ashcroft, defies that intent.

In addition to concerns about land-use and growth, the site has serious problems with groundwater depletion. In the 1990s, the city of Rohnert Park was sued for its overuse of the aquifer. “You could not possibly have picked a worse spot in the entire county,” says H.R. Downs, president of the O.W.L. Foundation (Open space, Water resource protection and Land use Foundation) which advocates for a sound groundwater management plan in Sonoma County. Downs worries that the tribe’s water rights will precede those of the county, exacerbating an already dire regional water problem—one he charges that Sonoma County as a whole has refused to address. If the tribe builds deep wells to serve a casino and hotel, neighbors may eventually find their wells drying up, he says.

Other issues include worries about how paving will affect the surrounding area, since the site is a floodplain. Environmental groups like Sonoma County Conservation Action have asked the tribe to address wildlife impacts, especially since the site drains into the Laguna de Santa Rosa, and eventually the Russian River—also a source of county drinking water. There are major traffic issues as plans to expand a nearby interchange with Highway 101 move forward over the objections of neighborhood critics. The site is also in the range of the California tiger salamander, a federally listed threatened species. The list goes on.

Greg Sarris defends the choice by noting that California voters gave the tribes the right to build casinos—and when the tribe abandoned the bayfront plan, it went through a list of 48 alternative sites with the Board of Supervisors. The Rohnert Park site was selected because it was adjacent to an area with commercial zoning. If the tribe were to build its casino on any other site in Sonoma County, says Sarris, it probably wouldn’t be acceptable under the general plan. “There are those people who live around the area who feel they’re going to be impacted by the traffic,” Sarris says. “We’re going to mitigate all of that, but there are going to be some changes, and they have a right to be concerned.”

The tribe is willing to sign legal and binding agreements that will hold it to strict environmental standards, which, Sarris notes, means “we give up our sovereignty.” Despite the myriad concerns of neighbors, environmentalists, and local government, Sarris believes that his tribe can use a Rohnert Park casino to “benefit Indian and non-Indian community alike.”

As a literature professor and a novelist, he says he never imagined himself at the helm of a casino, but he sees it as an “opportunity”—a word he uses a lot—to “build a facility green∧ build it union and run it union.” He envisions using casino profits to buy and preserve open space, creating trails along the Laguna to the Russian River. “My dream has always been what I call aboriginal restoration, where you try to restore the environment, as much as possible, to its aboriginal state,” he says.

In comparison with other tribes, the Graton band has made an extraordinary effort to work with its neighbors, but the tribe hasn’t swayed everyone. And no mitigation measure or revenue-sharing agreement will take away the sense that the voters have lost their voice. That’s ultimately the base of the frustration that many casino critics have—their own government can’t do anything to protect them from large developments.

“I think there’s a concern on the part of the Sierra Club and residents that we’re basically impotent,” says Peter Ashcroft. “You know, we can raise all of these concerns, and they don’t necessarily have any impact.” He acknowledges, though, “You can’t very well tell sovereign nations to do what you want.”

There is some hope for activists and local governments. Though they’ve been overshadowed by conflict surrounding the proposed San Pablo casino, the ten new tribal compacts that Governor Schwarzenegger signed in June and August require the tribes to work much more closely with local governments—and enter into enforceable agreements. Environmental review is a “CEQA-like” process. DeAnn Baker of CSAC counts these new compacts as a “victory.” Even Bill Allayaud of the Sierra Club was on stage as Schwarzenegger and tribal leaders signed the first set of agreements.

But these compacts won’t change history—they won’t affect the manner that tribes with 1999 compacts, including Dry Creek, work with local government. Gaming critics expect that the state’s future deals with currently non-compacted tribes—like the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria—will give counties and cities a stronger voice in determining adequate mitigation measures. “It may be that the state is sort of carving out new roles for local government,” says Bruce Goldstein.

California is home to 108 federally recognized tribes, with dozens more currently petitioning Congress for recognition. As more tribes gain federal recognition—a complicated process that can take years—and turn to gaming, they will be searching for land to put into trust. So-called “reservation shopping” is what CSAC’s DeAnn Baker calls “the big issue on the horizon.”

Gaming issues will continue to be in the news through the fall, as voters scrutinize two propositions on the November ballot—one backed by massive amounts of tribal money, the other by non-tribal card rooms that want a piece of the action. Both would expand gaming in the state, so, says Yolo County’s Mike McGowan, “Hang on to your hats, there’s a lot more coming.”•t

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