WEEKLY FEATURE: Sonoma County Approves Casino Pact With Rancheria

After three years of negotiations, Sonoma County officials have reached agreement with the Dry Creek Rancheria, allowing the tribe to move forward with plans to build a casino (l.) in Geyserville.

WEEKLY FEATURE: Sonoma County Approves Casino Pact With Rancheria

The Board of Supervisors of Sonoma County, California, February 28 approved a pact with the Dry Creek Rancheria that moves the tribe’s plans forward to build a casino resort in Geyserville, in the Alexander Valley, where the tribe operates River Rock Casino.

In return the tribe will pay $750,000 a year to the county until four years after the casino resort is completed, when there will be a 2 percent annual increase to the payment. The payments will cap at $1.5 million annually.

According to the report by the Press Democrat, the Board of Supervisors meeting was heated before the 4-1 vote— with residents and Alexander Valley neighbors of the project opposed to the memorandum of understanding (MOU), and lawyers representing various groups speaking—often heatedly. The vote came after three years of negotiations.

The project will have a 60,000-square-foot casino with as many as 1,500 slot machines—300 more than operate there now—a 300-room hotel, a spa and wedding chapel. The agreement supersedes a 2008 one that would have allowed a much larger project, with double the rooms and double the slots.

Dry Creek Chairman Chris Wright told supervisors: “I think we’ve come up with an MOA (memorandum of agreement) that is fair to the tribe and fair to the county.” He added, “I look forward to a government-to-government relationship going forward.”

When the new casino resort will be built is not determined yet. The Dry Creek Rancheria is still being developed. It is not a new concept. The tribe has been planning such a project for 16 years. It had always planned to upgrade its existing casino, which opened in 2002. Part of the new MOU was that the tribe ratcheted back those ambitious plans.

But it benefits the tribe too. The Press Democrat reports that Wright wrote in an email that the 2008 agreement, “was too cumbersome and took away Dry Creek Rancheria’s sovereignty.”

The old agreement also obligated the tribe to pay $3.5 million annually for public services. However, it missed some payments—which it later partially made up with a lump sum payment. Its casino revenues declined as a result of the 2008 Great Recession and more competition.

One compelling reason for the upgraded resort is the competition the tribe faces from the other casino in Sonoma County, Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park. Since it opened ten years ago and immediately took its place as the largest casino resort in Northern California, Graton has hemorrhaged business at River Rock. It is currently planning an expansion of both its casino and its hotel.

At the same time, the Koi Nation, also based in Sonoma County, is seeking permission from the federal government for a resort near Windsor.

The one supervisor who voted against the MOU, James Gore, has come under increasing pressure from constituents in the Alexander Valley, according to the report by the Press Democrat. His district includes the rancheria and River Rock Casino. They worry that the expanded casino will invite more crime and impact fire safety.

Gore says he was hoping to delay to give time for the neighbors and the tribe to reach a compromise. Residents who live near the casino complain that they have been left out of the discussions. They demand to be able to deal directly with the tribe rather than with the county as intermediary. At the hearing, Karin Warnelius-Miller, president of the Alexander Valley Association, declared, “We are very, very, angry and we’re not standing down.”

In an interview with the Press Democrat Warnelius-Miller added, “Our biggest thing is we’d like to coexist as we have been and collaborate.” She continued, “We have a lot of individuals that are concerned and it’s not OK that we get pushed out by the county counsel and not be shared this information about something that’s going to affect our valley.”

Gore commented, “There’s been no secrecy. This is wide open. It is transparent.” He added, “What hasn’t happened is proactive outreach.”

Proponents of the MOU point out to the fact that the tribe is under no obligation to reach any agreement at all with the county since it is sovereign and only needs the federal government’s assent.

One part of the MOU commits Dry Creek Rancheria to not building a casino on land it owns near Petaluma before 2035. But if the Koi Nation gets Bureau of Indian Affairs approval for a casino in Windsor, that provision would be voided.