Indians Hoping to Build Casino Offer Bay Area Land Deal

Times Staff Writer

An Indian tribe and its Las Vegas partner angling to build a gambling hall in Sonoma County have given the local community a sizable gift -- a $4.2-million option to buy nearly 1,700 acres along the environmentally sensitive San Francisco Bay.

The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and Stations Casino planned to build a casino resort on the land, which straddles a state highway on the bucolic north shore of the bay.

But that proposal met harsh resistance from environmentalists and neighboring communities. So the tribe and casino company in August switched targets and now aim to build a gambling hall on land just outside Rohnert Park, a plan that has met with tough opposition in that small city.

Participants in the land deal heralded it as a significant step to help preserve a huge swath of bay lands, which have been reduced by farming over the last century to one-fifth their original size.

Greg Sarris, tribal chairman, called the land "the lifeblood that binds our people together. It has long been a dream of our tribe to help restore and sustain Sonoma County's natural beauty for future generations."

The tribe has talked of restoring sedge grasses, prized for basket weaving, and preserving native burial grounds. Public walking trails and a cultural center are among the amenities being discussed.

In recent decades, nonprofits and the government have preserved more than 20,000 acres of bay lands, which host a variety of shorebirds, act as a nursery for fish and provide vital turf for several threatened species.

The $4.2-million option gives the Sonoma Land Trust the right to pay an additional $15.4 million toward a total purchase price of $19.6 million for the land. The purchase must be completed by August 2004 or the land will revert to its original owners.

Ralph Benson, executive director of the land trust, expressed confidence that a major fund-raising campaign will produce the needed money. He called the deal with the tribe and casino company "a no-strings-attached deal" and said the trust is not taking a stand on the casino in Rohnert Park.

The tribe's foes in Rohnert Park, meanwhile, characterized the deal as another attempt to curry favor with Sonoma County residents uneasy about another casino.

They noted that the tribe retains full ownership of about 321 acres next to the 1,679-acre option property that was given away. Some speculated the tribe might hold onto that acreage as a fallback in case a casino flops in Rohnert Park. "It makes you wonder," said Anita Felton of Action Against the Casino, a Rohnert Park group opposing Graton's gambling push.

Tribal officials, however, said they intend to stay the course in Rohnert Park and plan to give the 321-acre parcel, purchased outright for $4.3 million, to preservationists in the future.

Foes of the Rohnert Park casino have launched a three-front war, pushing to recall four council members, filing a lawsuit against the city and submitting more than 2,600 signatures Monday in an effort to qualify a referendum for the ballot to reverse a deal the council approved.

Those efforts are intended to undo the council's approval Oct. 14 of an agreement with the tribe, which pledged $200 million to the city and community groups over the next two decades in exchange for dropping opposition to the gambling hall.

Felton said the tribe's attempt to craft an environmentally friendly image runs head-on into realities in Rohnert Park, where foes believe a casino would cause groundwater problems that could dry up wells on neighboring properties.

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