May 26, 2000

Smalltown Backlash - Reservation Casinos Could Reshape Rural California

EDITOR'S NOTE: The extraordinary growth in legalized gambling on Indian land — from nothing to $8 billion a year in a decade — is about to grow much larger. An initiative granting each of the state's 95 tribes the right to build two casinos has Californians living anywhere near a reservation looking nervously over a shoulder.

By Koren Capozza

GEYSERVILLE, CA — The explosive growth in gambling on California Indian land in the past decade may now alter much of rural California.

On May 6, the Bureau of Indian Affairs effectively approved agreements signed in accord with Proposition 1a, a ballot measure amending the state constitution to allow any tribe with reservation land to run up to two casinos.

With 95 reservations in the state, and big name investors coming through the doors, tribes that own land are racing to build casino complexes, golf courses and parking lots on undeveloped federal trust lands. But as they push to get a piece of the $8 billion a year industry, they are encountering a backlash. Residents in rural counties feel powerless to influence much less stop the looming multi-million dollar gambling projects entering their own backyards.

"Even though the tribal compact lays out how the tribes should be interfacing with the community, there's no real teeth to it," says Lori Sylvester, Tuolomne County supervisor. Section 10 of the compact suggests that tribes "consult" with county supervisors or city council members to discuss mitigation — but does not happen if the two entities disagree.

"The speed at which this is happening is worrisome," says Sylvester, whose district will likely see a gaming complex in the next year.

In San Diego County, where many communities regularly face water shortages, plans for large-scale casino resorts owned by several tribes have been hotly criticized. A citizens' group, the Wildcat Canyon Alliance, in San Diego East County's Lakeside, is currently appealing to the Barona tribe to postpone expansion of their casino until community groups and state agencies can evaluate its impact on the region's ground water.

Just outside of Sacramento, in El Dorado county, the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians set up a temporary tent casino in 1996. The increased traffic in the quiet suburb created open hostility. The tribe sued the community association to establish its right to use of a private road — and lost. The association now has a bargaining chip and is working with the tribe to find an alternative site for the proposed 250-room hotel and 100,000 square foot casino complex. "It's ironic to say it, but we were fortunate to be sued. That's the only way we could get court jurisdiction over the tribe," says Penny Ledoux, president of the Homeowners Association.

In wine country, plans for new casinos have met intense opposition. Vintners in Alex-ander Valley, Sonoma County are up in arms over the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians' plans to build a 160,000 square foot casino in a region where 73 percent of residents voted against Proposition 1A. "We really don't have any recourse. They don't have to go through the standard planning commission process, or an environmental assessment," says Carole Ferell, vice president of the Alexander Valley Association. "The whole idea of gambling in this area is ludicrous. It just doesn't fit."

Reg Elgin, spokesperson for the Dry Creek tribe, says the question is really one of competition over water and labor. "If you look at the vast amount of land and water it takes to feed those few wealthy vintners, it's absurd to think they're telling us, people who have lived here for thousands of years, what to do," says Elgin who believes local farm labor may defect to work at the casino because the tribe plans to pay higher wages.

At the Geyserville Market and Deli just down the road from the casino site, the sentiment was on the side of the tribe. "They [the vintners] are stuck up and don't want undesirables in their neighborhood," said the clerk (who would not give his name.)

Some neighborhood associations are encouraged by the example of the United Auburn Tribe which worked with the Placer County board of supervisors to choose a site and then signed a legally binding agreement to reimburse the county for public service expenses incurred by the casino. "(United Auburn). . . is a model for the state and for the nation," says Cheryl Schmit, co-director of an anti-gaming citizens group, Stand Up for California.

Paul Kelly, a Sonoma County Supervisor opposed to the Geyserville casino, agrees. "We're hoping that if we put pressure on the tribe, they will work with us, just like they did in Placer County."

The Dry Creek Pomo, however, don't see any reason why they should follow in United Auburn's footsteps, however. "We believe our democratically elected tribal board is capable of negotiating with our own municipality. We have no plans to pattern ourselves after the United Auburn," says Elgin.

Koren Capozza writes about American Indian issues for the San Francisco-based New California Media (www. and American Indian Report in Washington D.C.

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