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Mid-County Madness

Watch in awe as the Rohnert Park-Cotati area goes loudly insane

By Joy Lanzendorfer

Lately it seems like Rohnert Park, the county's self-named "friendly city," has extended its sympathetic countenance a little too much to real estate developers. Commercial development is booming. Strip malls have sprung up and others are filling out with mostly chain stores since few independent businesses are coming in.

In only the last year or so, the town has gained four Starbucks, two Cold Stone Creameries, two Juice Shacks, two Quiznos, a Kinko's, Subway, Panda Express, McDonald's, 7-11, H&R Block, Cellular World, Baja Fresh Mexican Grill and, coming soon, an Office Depot. Most of these stores are in new buildings.

The town is also seeing new office and apartment complexes, including the Oak View Apartments near Sonoma State University. Property value has increased by 20 percent in the last year.

In most cases, the stores have come in with little or no public debate. Traffic has increased, especially on the Rohnert Park Expressway, and natural fields and trees have been replaced by boxy buildings, parking lots and the occasional island of manicured grass.

Yet, some developers say that real estate isn't prospering much in Rohnert Park. "There hasn't been any real commercial development, just a couple of little stores, little-bitty things," says Jimmie Rogers, a former Rohnert Park mayor, owner of Rogers Realty. Not to fear, other developments are on the way, including a large shopping center planned to arise behind the In-N-Out Burger franchise.

The construction has even spilled over into Cotati, which has seen several new housing complexes, a retail extension of its downtown and the beginning of the mixed-use Cotati Station. And of course, Cotati is warring over the 52-acre Cotati Commons project, which would include restaurants, retail stores, homes and a 165,000-square-foot Lowe's home improvement store. Environmental groups, residents and such business competitors as Yardbirds have worked to block Lowe's from coming in, even as the land for the store continues to be readied for construction. Residents will be voting on the issue for the third time in November and chances are that no one will be pleased with the outcome.

Of course, the most controversial project in the mid-county area is Rohnert Park's situation with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria's casino. The proposed casino site would fall outside Rohnert Park's urban growth boundary in an uninhabited flood plain. But with all its potential problems, the casino is part of a larger issue of growth: what is the future of Sonoma County's friendliest city?

The answer to that question lies in part with the recall election on Tuesday, Aug. 24. On that date, residents will vote on whether to recall Rohnert Park City Council members Armando Flores and Amy Spradlin, neither of whom returned calls for this article. If recalled, Flores would be replaced by either the leader of the anticasino campaign, Chip Worthington, or by former planning commissioner Ron Militello. Spradlin would be replaced by medical office worker Linda Lamb or fitness instructor Pam Stafford.

A group of residents started the recall effort because they say the city council wouldn't listen to the public on issues of growth, particularly in the case of the casino. Even though the casino has been a controversial issue from the beginning and its proposed location has moved from other localities, recall boosters charge that the city council didn't ask for public opinion and held meetings with the tribe behind closed doors. Next thing anyone knew, a $200 million revenue-sharing agreement called a memorandum of understanding (MOU) appeared between the tribe and city.

At heated town meetings, residents demand to be able to vote on the casino. The city council refused. A group of residents collected signatures to get a referendum to force a vote. They got 2,200 signatures, far more than the 1,780 they needed.

"Even though we exceeded the number of signatures, the city council still wouldn't allow us to vote, and they hired lawyers to litigate against us," alleges Lynne Condé, a nurse who helped develop the Rohnert Park Library. "I went to the city council meeting and asked if it were true that they hired lawyers to take away our right to vote, and then asked if it were true that we the people were paying for those lawyers. The attorney there admitted that, yes, both things were true."

A judge ruled that Rohnert Park residents wouldn't be allowed to vote on the MOU because referendums only apply to legislative decisions, not revenue agreements. But the city council couldn't stop the recall from happening.

Rumors abound of backroom deals between city council members, the tribe and developers. While there's little evidence that the gossip is true, the official donations have had an apparent influence. For example, the tribe donated $700,000 to the city's Department of Public Safety, and signs all over Rohnert Park now read, "Join Police Officers and Firefighters: Vote No on the Recall." The tribe gave Sonoma State University $1.5 million for its Native American studies program, and the school has since seemingly moved away from its previous anticasino stance.

The antirecall ad campaign also seems to be more lucrative than the pro-recall campaign. Slick "No on Recall" flyers appear in resident mailboxes several times a week. Full-page ads in the local daily paper and in TV spots urge people to vote no. Research agencies are calling households to ask residents if they support the recall and then asking whether residents think the recall is too extreme a punishment for public officials.

"Too extreme" seems to be one of the antirecall mantras. One ad shows a drawing of a man with long, curly hair wearing a monk's robe, his head and arms in a wooden stock from the middle ages. The headline says "Public humiliation is too extreme . . . so is the recall election in Rohnert Park!"

But comparing the recall to a medieval torture device may backfire. "At first I thought that the ad was funny," says Condé. "But then someone pointed out to me that it is actually very accurate. When our country fought the Revolutionary War, we fought for freedom from money, power and taxation without representation. So in a way, maybe they should be in stocks for taxing us, in a sense, without representation."

Some think the recall won't accomplish anything other than cheat residents out of some cash. "The recall is pretty foolish," says Rogers. "People have one of two choices. The casino is coming into Sonoma County, with or without the money. Vote no on the recall, and we get the money."

In this time of budget cuts, $200 million over 20 years is hard for any institution to turn down. Rohnert Park recently had to sell surplus land to balance its budget. However, some say that $200 million wouldn't begin to cover the problems caused by the casino. Along with other growth, the casino would put pressure on the city's resources, especially water and sewer. Traffic and crime might also increase. The tribe says donations to the police force have helped curb crime. In addition, it plans to mitigate over traffic concerns.

Anticasino groups also point out that $200 million is a drop in the bucket compared to what the tribe will make off the casino--and that money is untaxable. Worse, some say, the MOU is filled with loopholes.

"Lawyers have looked at the MOU and laughed," says Worthington. "It says that if the project does not meet the expectations of the tribe, then they don't have to fulfill their financial obligation. Well, 'expectations' is a vague, emotional term. It has nothing to do with business. There's five or six different ways the tribe can get out of paying the city the money."

All the candidates running for the recall have vowed to overturn the MOU. Worthington in particular wants slow growth that balances environmental concerns with business. "I want to protect our way of life," he says. "They can't clog up Highway 101 and throw up all these huge stores while ignoring what the people want. No one wants this town to grow from 45,000 to 75,000 people this quickly. I want to bring back the idea of the public servant to the city council."

The Graton band say there is nothing anyone can do to stop the casino.

"The recall doesn't affect us whatsoever, and the folks in Rohnert Park are greatly misguided if they think it will," says tribal chairman Greg Sarris. "We will not be ping-ponged around. Either the city will work with us or it doesn't, but understand this: the governor is required by federal law to issue a compact to us. We have a right, and we will follow that right."

If the MOU is overturned, the tribe says it will likely sue the city for breaking a business agreement. "One of our options would be to sue for the amount we would have lost by not having the casino," says Sarris. "Do you know how much that would be? More money than Rohnert Park would have in a hundred years."

Some feel that the rights of ordinary citizens are stepped on in favor of Indian casinos. David Yeagley, a member of the Comanche tribe in Oklahoma, was recently invited by the newly formed American Indians for Accountability (AIA) to speak in Rohnert Park. Since then, he has written several articles about the recall.

"Groups like AIA emphasize the rights of American citizens that are being taken away by what's called Indian sovereignty, but is really a casino-driven business," he says. "When new tribes pop up and decide to build a casino, the rights of the townspeople are often bulldozed over by politicians."

The Graton band are descendents of the Miwok-Pomo Indians. To be a member, you have to prove lineage to a Native American on the 1922 census for Sonoma and Marin counties. For example, Sarris, though only a quarter Indian--as well as Filipino, German, Irish and Jewish--had a great-great-great-grandmother who was born in a mission and ended up working on Vallejo's Petaluma adobe.

Casinos are controversial even among Native Americans. Some say that they hurt the idea of sovereignty by allowing it to be controlled by greed. "When you play with sovereignty, it affects the rest of us," says Yeagley. "Plains Indians associate sovereignty with blood, not paper agreements like the Indians in California do. It degrades the whole meaning of being Indian. That's not this tribe's intent, but that's the precedent they're setting."

The tribe says that the casino will help Rohnert Park rather than hurt it. Along with the MOU, the hotel rooms of the casino will be kept small so that spillover traffic will go to local hotels. The casino has agreed not to build a golf course to keep from competing with local golf courses. And, Sarris stresses, employees will have great dental and health coverage as well as above-average salaries.

When asked if the tribe will bring anything good to the city, aside from money, though, Sarris seems at a loss.

"What else is there?" he says.

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From the August 18-24, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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