Thursday, May 8, 2008

Tribe wanting to buld casino granted 254 acres in Bay Area

In a major step toward a Las Vegas-style mega-casino in the Bay Area, federal officials on Wednesday announced a decision to take 254 acres into trust for an American Indian tribe just off Highway 101 in Sonoma County.

The 1,000-member Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria still needs a finalized environmental review, then must seal a state gaming compact before it can build a planned 760,000-square-foot casino complex with a 300-room hotel near Rohnert Park. But the decision pushes the tribe closer to that plan, which local opponents have fought for five years. Like the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, which gained 9 acres of trust land in San Pablo — and now runs more than 1,000 electronic bingo machines there without a state compact — the decision Wednesday stems from a controversial act of Congress, not the usual regulatory approval process.

In 2000, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer backed restored tribal status for Graton in legislation that, unlike an earlier bill, allowed the possibility of a casino. The project has raised a furor from opponents in both Marin and Sonoma counties since the tribe picked out the land in 2003. Station Casinos, which operates the Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln, would run it.

In a statement Wednesday, Graton chairman Greg Sarris played down the federal decision as "just one of several steps in the long process to reestablish a reservation and build a resort." A 30-day judicial review period for the Advertisementdecision began Wednesday.

Marilee Montgomery of the Stop the Casino 101 Coalition, said the group planned court fights that could hold up the project for years, including a challenge to the federal government's right to take the land in trust.

"This is a big deal, but if it goes forward at all, it's going to be a real tough row for them to hoe," she said.

The land sits just outside city limits, a few blocks west of the freeway.

George Forman, an attorney for other tribes, said Graton faces a big hurdle in securing a state compact. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has run into roadblocks in the Legislature as he pushes gambling expansion for casino tribes in exchange for a bigger share of casino profits.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, called the Graton bid "the purest form of reservation shopping" and pledged to fight any compact the governor signs.

"This is a unique situation, unlike many of the compacts we've seen where gaming has been proposed on legitimate tribal land," he said. "This is not legitimate tribal land."

Though Schwarzenegger has said he opposes urban gaming, under federal law the state must negotiate in good faith with tribes that have land eligible for gaming.

"If they approach us and they have eligible land, we would have to go into negotiation with them if they wanted," said spokesman Aaron McClear.

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