Lytton Pomos, Windsor neighbors find communication difficult

Indian band needs casino money before beginning development on Windsor property

by BERT WILLIAMS, News EditorWindsor Times 4/7/04, p.1, 11

Amid reports of ongoing negotiations between the governor and the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians over gaming at its proposed San Pablo casino, neighbors of a 50-acre parcel on the outskirts of Windsor are uneasy about the band's plans for developing that property.

The Lytton Band expects eventually to acquire the 50 acres along the south side of Windsor River Road on Windsor's western border. The group has said it wants to build homes, a community center and a ceremonial roundhouse on the rolling land that includes seasonal wetlands, a seasonal stream, bay, madrone and oak trees. The land is owned by an investor group that has collaborated with the band on the San Pablo casino project.

Bob Crawford, who lives just up the street from the property, said last week that he hasn't heard anything recently about the Lytton Band's plans for the property. "We're just waiting for the other shoe to drop," he said.Nearby neighbors say they are concerned that the Indians' use of the land will not be subject to zoning provisions of the county's General Plan. They also express frustration that they cannot get more information about the plans their potential neighbors have for the property.

Debbie Bailey lives on 2.5 acres, three doors down from the 50 acre parcel. "What bothers me most," said Bailey, "is that a group of people could move in and not abide by the rules that we have to abide by."

According to Crawford, who owns four acres just west of the 50 acres, representatives of the band "have tried to cast us as bigots who just want to keep the Indians out."

Santa Rosa attorney Tony Cohen, who represents the band, said there has been evidence that some of the neighbors may harbor prejudiced attitudes.

He cited, as an example, a sign that neighbors erected in 2001. Near the top of the sign in large print the word "reservation" was preceded by an equally-large blank space. Cohen theorized that neighbors may have thought that "it would somehow be more politically correct" if they whited out the word "Indian" before "reservation."The sign warned, among other concerns, about property devaluation resulting from the development."Why will one high-quality home per acre in a development clustered to avoid taking out oaks 'devalue' neighbors property?" Cohen asked. "It's not about the whited out word is it?"

Crawford and Bailey both say that neighbors are not prejudiced against Indians."We are a multi-racial, multi-religious neighborhood," said Bailey. "Use the land in accordance with the county's General Plan and we'll all be thrilled."Neighbor Bill McCormick, whose home is on a 3/4-acre parcel between Crawford and Bailey, is a geologist with Santa Rosa engineering firm Kleinfelder Inc. McCormick said that "overuse" of the land west of his property is his primary concern.

"From an environmental, practical engineering viewpoint, we're opposed (to their plans)," said McCormick. "I have told them, 'If you want to come in and build 10 houses there, I'll be the first to bring the fruit basket and welcome you.'"The county zoning ordinance requires that a house be built on no less than five acres. "You couldn't get a septic approval now on one acre anywhere in the county," said Crawford, referring to the band's plan to build one home per acre on the land.The neighbors say they are concerned about traffic, water supply and wastewater treatment for the proposed development.

Building a wastewater treatment facility on the 50-acres is problematic, according to McCormick. The ground in the area absorbs very little water, he said, and he noted, "You could barely get it to pass a perc test for one house on five acres."McCormick said that test holes dug years ago on the property often hold standing rain water until July."Everything they do there is going to run onto someone else's property," insisted McCormick. "The majority of the property drains right across here." McCormick gestured toward a small creek that runs through the Bailey, McCormick and Crawford properties. "It's a seasonal stream. It's dry in the summertime, but it gets about 20 feet wide during a rainstorm."McCormick said the neighbors are also concerned about the local water supply. New wells to provide water for 50 families could draw down the water table, with consequences to existing wells in the neighborhood, he said.

The neighbors admit they are short on specifics about plans being made by the Lytton Band. They say band members won't talk to them."Since they're not communicating with us, we're in the dark," said Bailey.

"We have tried to contact them," said McCormick, "but their lawyer insists, 'We only talk lawyer to lawyer or government to government.'""We'd love to sit down and talk with them," said Crawford."

Last week the Times attempted to contact the Lytton Band's Chairwoman Margie Mejia. The receptionist at the band's headquarters near Coddingtown Mall explained that Mejia was at a conference in Reno, and wouldn't be back until the following week. She said she did not know when Mejia would be available.

The band's Sacramento-based media representative, Doug Elmets, said he hoped that "at some point in the future" Mejia might be available for comment, but that the sensitivity of negotiations with the governor made that currently impossible.

Attorney Cohen said he would pass on to Mejia the Times' request for a meeting, but he noted that band members are usually reticent to comment publicly because of bad experiences in the past.

"Some of the neighbors have been abusive," he said, "They've been abusive at the Town Council, on the phone and in the press." He added that the abuse came from a small minority.

Cohen went on to say that the experiences have been difficult enough that Lytton Band members do not want to subject themselves to further pain. He noted, for example, that when the Indians have claimed there were no new developments to report about the property, neighbors accused them of lying.

Cohen said that, in fact, there are no new developments to report about the Windsor property. Title to the land continues to be held by the Philadelphia investment group whose managing partners are Sam Katz and Sam Greenblatt, he said. The Philadelphia group is no longer collaborating with the band on the San Pablo casino project, Cohen said. The band is now working with a group called California Indian Gaming Management that operates the Cache Creek Casino owned by the Rumsey Rancheria in YoloCounty. Cohen said the plan is now for CIGM to operate the San Pablo casino for the Lytton Band.

The band does want to move ahead with plans for the Windsor property, Cohen said, but they need money to do so, and the plans will have to wait until the casino in San Pablo opens.

"There will be no action until a lot of money comes from the casino," Cohen said.

Once money is available, the band will hire engineers to do a thorough site assessment. All the neighbors' concerns, including water supply, wastewater treatment and traffic impact, will be addressed, Cohen said, noting that the site assessment must be done under NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) guidelines."NEPA will not allow the tribe to do the things the neighbors say they are concerned about," Cohen insisted. He also pointed out that the public will be given the opportunity to review and comment on all the environmental documents that grow out of the site assessment process.Cohen noted that there are ways in which the town can benefit from the development of the property. He cited improvements to public roads as an example.

Cohen said connecting the development to the town's water and sewer systems would resolve some of the important environmental concerns relating to potential development.

"There are a lot of things that the tribe could do by way of incentives" for the town, he observed, suggesting, as an example, the possibility that the band might make a contribution to the town's proposed aquatic center.

Cohen said one reason band members are not talking to neighbors now is the fear that, at some point in the process of developing the land, litigation may be brought against them. They do not want inadvertently to say something now that might compromise a future court case, he said.

"Right now there isn't any information to share, and nothing to be gained by talking," he said. Cohen noted that the band has worked very hard to gain the confidence of local officials and citizens in San Pablo, and that they have been successful at gaining broad support from that community.

"They will do the same in Windsor," said Cohen."They will participate in a neighborly process when the right time comes."