A new report that evaluates the probable consequences of building an Indian casino on a 2,000-acre parcel near wetlands by the Napa County border in Southern Sonoma County, off Highway 37, found the project would produce dramatic effects on the environment.
Individuals from the Bay Institute, the Sonoma Land Trust and the Sonoma Ecology Center contributed to the report, known as the White Paper, which was posted online Monday.
The White Paper attempts to evaluate the expected environmental impacts of the casino. Given the likelihood that the site's status as Indian trust land will give it an exemption from federal, state and local environmental review process.
In that case, it might not have to comply with the Endangered Species Act or any other mandates.
However, a legislative bill recently introduced by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-San Francisco) and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma) would require the tribe to consult with public agencies and non-governmental organizations before moving forward with the project, ensuring that the some form of environmental analysis occurs. It is unclear whether the bill will pass.
A group of Napa County residents have joined No Las Vegas on the North Bay, a multi-county group opposed to construction of the casino. Also, the Napa County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in June opposing the casino.
"It's not just a matter of putting in a casino. It's the McDonald's and the motels and everything else that comes with it," said Yvonne Baginski, a Napan who represents the county on No Las Vegas on the North Bay. "I think it's going to change the entire character of the Bay Area."
No current footprint shows exactly how the federated Indians of Graton Rancheria will construct the casino. However, the White Paper, which studied land adjacent to the proposed site of development, found that any development would have significant effects on a number of endangered species in the surrounding area.
The proposed site of development is situated in the middle of an area, the White Paper states, where nearly 21,000 acres have been purchased and set aside for wetland restoration since 1972. The purchases, by public agencies and non-governmental organizations, occurred at a cost of more than $600 million. In addition, the Sonoma Land Trust recently announced it was near to closing a deal to purchase land for wetlands restoration that bordered directly on the proposed site for the casino.
"There's a level of public investment there that's extraordinary," said Ralph Benson, executive director of the Sonoma Land Trust. "To put a development right smack in the middle will really threaten that investment."
A spokesperson for the Graton Rancheria's proposed casino could not be reached by press time.
Charlie Toledo, director of the Suscol Tribal Council, said she supports the project because it will generate a source of income for Native Americans, most of whom live below the poverty line.
She did not know the exact number of acres the casino will occupy once constructed, but said part of the land was once used as a burial site for Native Americans. The casino, she said, would not adversely affect the ecology on most of the 2000-acre parcel.
However, the gist of the White Paper disputed her claims, citing environmental impacts from toxin leakage into nearby wetlands through run-off to reduced air quality resulting from additional traffic.
According to the report, traffic flows would be dramatically altered. The report states, if the 2,000-slot machine casino is built, it will generate 6,000 to 12,000 additional vehicle trips per day in the area. The resulting traffic would reach "Sonoma and Napa Valleys, Highway 101 corridor from San Rafael northward and the Highway 37 corridor from I-80," according to the report.
The report states that "Hydrocarbons in gasoline and motor oil, copper, mercury, and other heavy metals would be generated by motor vehicles parked on-site and by the greatly increased traffic traveling on approach roads. Pesticides and herbicides would be generated from landscaped areas and a possible golf course," which would all flow into nearby low-lying wetlands after rainfall because of the site's location in the middle of other wetlands.
One of the report's authors Marc Holmes, director of the Bay Institute, said the problem was that different plans of the casino being circulated show construction occurring in different areas of the parcel.
"The problem is they don't have to present a target," said Holmes. "It's a moving target."
The area around Sears Point, however, is red-flagged as an area for special management, and should be preserved as critical habitat for the red-legged frog, according to Jim Nickles, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. The red-legged frog is a federally listed threatened species.
Toledo said she was glad that the White Paper presented a plan to preserve the land, but pointed to a section of the paper that describes the former conditions of the land. It was European settlers who destroyed the land and left it badly in need of restoration, she said.
While Toledo said that the portion of the 2000-acre parcel not developed for the casino would be converted to wetlands, her comments reflect a conflict at the heart of how the land will be used.
Mary McEachron, an attorney with a Marin County law firm, working on the case with the firm Hanson-Bridgette as well as a member of No Las Vegas on the North Bay, said it is hard to believe restoration on the site would ever occur. Given the history of Station Casinos, the Las Vegas-based business partner of the federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, she said she doubted it.
She used an advertisement for Station Casinos' Thunder Valley Casinos in Lincoln as evidence that restoring portions of the 2000-acre proposed casino site to wetlands, financed by profits from the casino, would be unlikely. The ad, she said, boasts about having "over 3,000 parking spaces and thunderous Good Times!" as well as a Starbucks and other fast food venues, but no wetlands.
The proposed site is too ecologically valuable for a casino, McEachron said. She said there is no reason to doubt rumors that the tribe is looking at alternate sites to place the casino.
"We intend to protect the land, so we certainly hope that there is an effort to move it somewhere else," she said.
Gabe Friedman can be reached at 256-2216 or email@example.com