Lytton housing plan stirs unease



Published: Saturday, August 22, 2009 at 8:06 p.m.

Last Modified: Saturday, August 22, 2009 at 8:06 p.m.


An Indian tribe's plans to build homes and a community center for its members on the edge of Windsor is drawing increasing scrutiny and opposition.  The Lytton Rancheria Band of Pomo has steadily acquired land on Windsor's western fringe, and a newly released, hefty environmental study for the project is prompting renewed criticism of the plan.


Neighbors and Windsor and Sonoma County officials express alarm at the tribe's intent to create a reservation and build 147 residences on the property bordering Windsor River Road.  “We are very concerned about its incompatibility with the county general plan,” said Supervisor Paul Kelley, whose northern Sonoma County district includes Windsor. “In my opinion, it appears to be more than what the property can handle.”


“It's eight times the density, in the wrong location, without urban services,” Windsor Councilwoman Debora Fudge said Friday. “I am even more in opposition to this development than I was before.” 


But tribal spokesman Doug Elmets said the ongoing environmental analysis will address the water, wastewater, traffic and other issues that have been raised.  “This is an outstanding project. The reality is, it will be one of the most beautiful master-planned communities in Northern California,” he said.


Officials and neighbors of the 92 acres also are uneasy that the Lytton Band of Pomo has been unwilling to rule out the possibility of building a casino there, even though the tribe insists it has no such plans.  “Why are they not willing to put it in writing and why do they need that much acreage?” Fudge asked. “I don't know why they continue to buy up parcels all the way to the river, unless there are other plans.”  She said previously that tribal representatives told her they would not rule out a casino because they did not want to tie the hands of a future tribal council.


But Elmets said it's not a viable location for a casino. As a practical matter, he said, it would be nearly impossible to get federal approval for gaming once the land is taken into trust for a reservation.  “I will reiterate, for the record, that the tribe is not going to build a casino in Windsor on that property,” Elmets said Friday. “This is for a master-planned community for tribal members, period.”


The 270-member Lytton Band has been landless since 1961, when the federal government dissolved its 50-acre Alexander Valley rancheria.  In 2003, as a result of what Congress acknowledged was an illegal termination, the tribe took over a cardroom in the East Bay and opened a casino. The San Pablo Casino has more than 1,100 electronic “bingo” machines that are virtually indistinguishable from slot machines.  The tribe's plan to significantly expand its San Pablo Casino and add thousands of slots was approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but following a huge public outcry was rejected by the Legislature in 2004.


Revenue from the casino has enabled the tribe to steadily add to its landholdings in Windsor at premium prices.

Even without a casino in the picture in Windsor, the tribe's plans for housing are meeting with resistance.

A 718-page environmental assessment was released last month detailing the Lytton Pomos' preferred plan to build 147 residential units consisting of 95 single-family homes, 24 “cottages” and 28 high-density units. There also would be a 19,000-square-foot community center that would include a banquet hall, administrative offices and a wellness center or small medical clinic.


The tribe also is proposing a 2,500-square-foot roundhouse for spiritual and ceremonial use and a similarly sized retreat structure.  As an alternative, the tribe is proposing 55 residences if the environmental studies do not support their preferred plan.  The consultants' study is meant to serve as the basis for the tribe's application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take the land into trust and allow the project to become a reality. How much influence the county and town can exert in stopping or shaping the size of the project is unclear.


“In the end it's a BIA decision and it's hard to know what the BIA will decide,” said Kelley.


When it comes to putting land into trust for a reservation, “it can take years,” said Pat O'Mallan, the BIA project supervisor.


“It depends on whatever opposition they get. And if they drag congressional representatives in, it becomes more of a political battle,” he said of trust applications in general.  Elmets expects it will take at least two years before construction could begin.  There are a half-dozen single-family homes on the seven parcels that make up the tribe's property. The majority of the 92 acres is undeveloped and heavily wooded with more than 4,000 trees, mostly oaks.


Fudge said she also is bothered that more than 1,000 trees would be cut down to make way for the tribe's plans. Neighbors say they also are concerned that the development could add 1,000 car trips daily to Windsor River Road.


“There are serious flaws in the environmental assessment. It's so rosy-colored,” said Bill McCormick, a neighbor of the tribe's property.  For one, he said, it does not take into account the decline in value of surrounding properties that would occur if the project goes ahead in the largely rural neighborhood.  He also questioned assumptions made in the study regarding traffic, wastewater and other issues.


The tribe would like to get water and wastewater services from Windsor, but the town has declined the request, Fudge said.  Windsor has its own water supply constraints and the site is outside the voter-approved urban growth boundary, meaning city utilities apparently could not be extended to such an urban level of density without voter approval.  That leaves the tribe's alternate proposal of drilling wells and building its own sewage plant. Neighbors are worried about impacts to their own wells, and expressed concerns about the wastewater pond the tribe would have to build and the winter discharge of recycled wastewater into a nearby creek that enters the Russian River.


The Windsor school district also said there are shortcomings in the analysis because it concludes there will be no adverse impact to local schools.  Windsor school Superintendent Steve Herrington said the homes would ordinarily be subject to between $302,000 and $811,000 in school impact fees, depending on which size project the tribe built. But if the land is accepted into trust for a reservation, the school district would not get the impact fees that are collected on that many homes.


The questions and concerns over the issues in the environmental document led to the Bureau of Indian Affairs extending the public comment period from the end of this month to Sept. 15.