Greg’s Gamble

The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria have found yet another location for their hotel/casino/theater complex in Sonoma County. In August, the tribe announced it had acquired 90 acres adjacent to the open hay field it last slated for its casino. Unlike the hay field, which lies in what Sonoma County considers a community separator area, the new site is within nearby Rohnert Park’s urban growth boundary.

The new location is farther away from environmentally sensitive Laguna de Santa Rosa and closer to US 101, factors tribal chairman Greg Sarris says were primary considerations for the shift. “If we are indeed going to be keepers of the land, we have to demonstrate that now,” says Sarris, who refers to himself as a “staunch environmentalist” and hopes that his tribe can use profits from the casino to acquire and preserve open space in the North Bay.

The move marks the third site for the tribe, which previously abandoned a controversial Sears Point site and donated its options on 1,700 acres of wetlands to the Bay Institute before acquiring the hay field site in 2003. Meanwhile, plans for the casino continue to move through a federal environmental review process, with a draft statement due out in late spring, at which point the public will be able to make additional comments on the draft.

The new site was the subject of an October 2005 meeting that made it clear critics were not appeased by the change. The Stop the Casino 101 Coalition continues to vigorously oppose the project, and press liaison Marilee Montgomery said the group had retained “one of the best environmental litigators in the state” to challenge the project as it moves forward.

H.R. Downs, president of the OWL Foundation, which advocates for a sound groundwater management plan in Sonoma County, says the new site has many of the same problems as the hay field. The casino would remain atop an area that Downs says is in extreme groundwater overdraft. “It’s highly irresponsible to put this in,” says Downs. “This casino was never planned for.”

But some mainstream environmental groups are pleased with the move. “In terms of land use, we see this as a preferable site,” says Daisy Pistey-Lyhne of Greenbelt Alliance. “But we are still watching to see that our main land use concerns are addressed through the environmental review process.” Pistey-Lyhne says she believes other groups are waiting to see what the draft environmental impact statement reveals.

The tribe still has hoops to leap through beyond the EIR: The land must be put into trust by the federal government and the tribe has to negotiate and sign a state gaming compact with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger before the casino can move forward. Sarris says he hopes the final EIR will be available early next year, at which point he says the tribe will be able to work on architectural drawings for the gaming resort.

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