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Chris Sieroty

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Rohnert Park casino opponents seek to block construction

9 Aug 2012

By Chris Sieroty
LAS VEGAS -- The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria continue to work with Station Casinos, Inc. to build a $443 million hotel-casino development in Northern California, even as opponents are trying a new approach to kill the project.

The new complaint challenges the legality of a 2003 revenue-sharing agreement between Rohnert Park and the Graton Rancheria, which would pay about $200 million for public safety, education, among other city services.

Opponents also argue the tribe has improperly shifted the casino site. When the agreement was signed, the tribe planned to build on a site northwest of Rohnert Park Parkway and Stony Point Road. The property overlaps in places with the 254-acre reservation, which was placed in trust for the tribe.

But the agreement says the 535,000-square-foot project is supposed to be built on a different part of the reservation than where workers are grading a 64-acre site. Rohnert Park is about 43 miles from San Francisco in Sonoma County.

"Everyone has known for a while that the agreement is site specific and doesn't cover any other site," Mike Healy, an attorney who represents Stop the Casino 101 Coalition, said Wednesday.

Healy said the problem has never been fixed or even discussed.

Rohnert Park City Manager Gabe Gonzalez declined comment Wednesday, as did Station Casinos, which has a management and development contract with the tribe.

The tribe broke ground on the Las Vegas-style casino project on June 18 after receiving local approval. As of Dec. 31, Station Casinos has advanced the tribe $153.35 million.

When completed in 18 to 24 months, the resort is expected to employ 2,500 workers. It will have a 100,000-square-foot casino with as many as 3,000 slot machines.

The Las Vegas-based gaming company's management contract is for seven years. Station Casinos will receive 24 percent of the facility's net income for the first four years, and 27 percent for the following three years.

The Stop the Casino 101 Coalition filed suit in Sonoma County Superior Court in June, and in a July 31 amended complaint, it challenged the sovereign status of the tribe's reservation. The lawsuit names California Gov. Jerry Brown. In April, Brown signed the gaming compact between the state and tribe that gives the tribe the right to operate a casino.

The state has until Aug. 31 to respond to the lawsuit. Messages left with the California Attorney General's Office were not returned.

Healy, who wrote the lawsuit now in state court, said he is also preparing a federal lawsuit challenging the U.S. Department of Interior's decision to put land into trust.

Opponents of Rohnert Park cite a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that affirmed that individuals have the right to sue the federal government when it takes land into trust for tribes wanting to open casinos.

The ruling also extended to six years the time window to sue the government about such decisions.

Healy said the case is about the ability of tribes to build casinos off-reservation on trust land, and would have "no effect" on casinos operated on rancherias and traditional reservations.

Tribal gaming has become an important business in California. A Beacon Economics study released Wednesday found tribal gaming generates $7.5 billion for the state's economy. The industry also supports 52,000 jobs and $2.7 billion in annual income.

"The benefits are broad-based and statewide, including tribes and tribal members, non-tribal members, local economies and state and local government budgets," said Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of the Los Angeles-based economic research firm.

Thornberg said tribal gaming operations generate $467 million in state and local revenues.

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