Cultures Clash Over California Casino

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The rustic beauty of the countryside just north of San Francisco has long lured visitors with vistas of vineyards, farms, oak stands and open spaces.

But if developers have their way, an Indian casino will also find a home in bucolic Sonoma County, right in the heartland of America’s wine-growing industry and less than an hour’s drive from San Francisco.The controversy over the proposed casino pits the 580 members of an Indian tribe native to the region and their union backers against environmentalists and locals, who fear an invasion of outsiders whose tastes run more to beer nuts than Brie.

“There is a snob factor working against what is being perceived as a garish casino at one of the entrances to California’s wine country,” said Rich Cartiere, publisher of the Wine Market Report, an industry newsletter. “The wine industry views itself as representing a fine sin, as opposed to a run-of-the-mill sin represented by a casino.”

Not even a pledge of a neon-free casino and an offer to share $164 million in gaming revenues with local governments impresses opponents, who have organized groups such as “No Las Vegas in the North Bay.”

“We find it contrary to what we all, at least locally, viewed as the Indians’ philosophy of life — that they love Mother Earth,” said Patrick Wofford, chairman of Sonoma Citizens to Stop the Casino, adding his group wants to help the tribe find an alternate site.

WEALTH VERSUS WETLANDS

At the center of the controversy is some 200 acres of empty hay field at the intersection of two highways where the tribe wants to build its casino. It would be managed by Station Casinos Inc. (NYSE:STN – News), a Las Vegas company that recently opened a tribal casino with some 1,900 slot machines near Sacramento, the state capital.

The proposed below-sea-level site is near public land slated to be turned into marshes and private property that environmentalists want to return to the marshland it once was.

Standing at the tribe’s proposed site, Marc Holmes of the Bay Institute environmental group says the casino would trigger a “domino effect” of building in neighboring fields.

A casino development would cause prices of surrounding property to escalate and drive a wedge between two key watersheds, Holmes said. “This would just drop a grenade in the plan to restore thousands of acres of tidal wetlands,” he said.

The 580-member Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria says it plans to set aside 1,700 acres of its 2,000 acres of land for open space and wants to restore local wildlife habitat.

Noting that fortunes have been made from wineries on what originally was Indian land, the tribe maintains that gambling revenues will lift its members out of poverty.

According to the tribe, annual income for a third of its members is less than $20,000 while the median family income is about $62,000 in Sonoma County and $89,000 in neighboring Marin County.

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