Bill to take land into trust for Lytton Rancheria

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Rep. Jared Huffman introduced a bill this week to take land near Windsor into federal trust for housing and other purposes — but not a casino — as part of the Lytton Rancheria reservation.

 

The bill, introduced Thursday, would allow the Pomo tribe to return to a communal homeland about 10 miles from their original reservation north of Healdsburg. No gaming will be conducted on the lands to be taken into trust by the federal government, according to Huffman’s office.

In an interview Friday, he said the legislation will give the tribe, the county, and the town of Windsor a measure of certainty over what can be built and how the housing impacts will be offset. He said it also provides a guarantee that a casino will not be developed on the property, an outcome that would not be certain if the tribe sought the alternate route of getting the land into trust through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“An Act of Congress has advantages. It gives everyone control over the outcome,” Huffman said.

The Lytton Rancheria lost its homeland north of Healdsburg in 1958 when it was terminated by the federal government. That termination was later found to be unlawful, and in 1991 the tribe was restored to federally recognized status.

A decade later, through legislation sponsored by former East Bay Congressman George Miller, the Lyttons took over an old cardroom and began operating the San Pablo Casino, generating profits that allowed the tribe to buy up land around Windsor for an intended homeland for its 270 members.

The Lyttons want to build 147 homes on 124 acres south of Windsor River Road, along with a community center, roundhouse and retreat.

Initial strong opposition from the county and Windsor officials, along with skepticism that the tribe might be pursuing another casino, eventually softened with a consensus that the tribe was likely to get approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

A number of neighboring residents who objected vociferously to the project ended up selling their land to the tribe at premium prices and moving away.

The application with the BIA has been stalled for years, however, leading some Windsor residents to doubt the assumption that the Lyttons eventually would get their new homeland. They question Huffman’s willingness to make it Indian land, removing it from local land use and zoning restrictions.

“He’s handing it to them on a silver platter,” said Windsor resident Eric Wee, a former journalist and Web entrepreneur who maintains there is still plenty of serious opposition in Windsor against the Lytton project.

“That Huffman has gone ahead and put this legislation forward without further consulting the people of Windsor — we really feel that he is basically not listening to our concerns and going over our head,” said Wee, who met with the congressman recently to voice his objections.

Wee noted that more than 1,500 trees, mostly blue oaks, will be removed to clear the way for the Lytton project.

But he also asserted that most Windsor residents “don’t want a huge slice of land made into a foreign state — a sovereign nation they have no control over.”

Margie Mejia, chairwoman of the Lytton Rancheria, praised Huffman’s bill.

“This is an important day for the tribe. It has been over 60 years since our land was lost to us and this bill represents the light at the end of the tunnel towards the day when we will finally, and forever, have a communal homeland from which our children will grow and prosper,” Mejia said in a statement issued by Huffman’s office.

Huffman said his bill is supported by the Lytton Rancheria, the County of Sonoma and the town of Windsor.

He said an important condition for introducing his bill was that the tribe negotiate an agreement with its government neighbors to address their potential concerns, including the strong opposition to new casinos in Sonoma County.

The negotiated deal is a model for functional, respectful, productive relationships between local governments and tribes, according to Huffman.

Windsor Mayor Bruce Okrepkie on Friday said the town is finalizing an agreement with the tribe over a long-sought municipal aquatic center the tribe would build in exchange for getting water and sewer service to its housing project.

“We felt it would be best to work with them and that’s what the council has been doing,” he said.

But the extension of city utilities outside the urban boundary is something Windsor voters will need to approve.

The tribe said even if it doesn’t get town utilities, it can drill wells, and if necessary build its own waste treatment facility.

The county and Lytton Rancheria signed a memorandum of agreement on March 10 that details the development and management of the land. It calls for the tribe to pay the county $6.1 million for one-time impacts, such as to county roads, parks and woodlands.

Susan Gorin, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said Huffman’s legislation will protect the agreement.

“This legislation strikes a key balance in reestablishing a tribal homeland for the Lytton Rancheria, ensuring that the off-reservation impacts of tribal development are mitigated, and guaranteeing that the land will never be used for gaming,” Gorin said in a statement. “Absent this action, the county would have no ability to manage offsite impacts, or preclude gambling.”

Huffman serves as a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees tribal policies and lands. He introduced the bipartisan bill with Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock.

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You can reach Press Democrat Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or [email protected]. On [email protected]