House Natural Resources Committee Passes Rep. Huffman’s Improved Lytton–Sonoma Legislation
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Congressman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) announced yesterday that the House Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved his Lytton Rancheria Homelands Act of 2015 (H.R. 2538), which would take lands in Sonoma County into trust for housing and other non-gaming purposes as part of the Lytton Rancheria reservation. Today’s vote was the last step in the committee review process before the full House of Representatives votes on the bill.
Huffman amended and strengthened his legislation as part of the committee process to expand the casino prohibitions in the bill and further protect the Memorandum of Agreement signed by the Lytton Tribe and Sonoma County in 2015. The approved legislation will permanently prohibit gaming on the lands taken into trust by the bill, prohibit gaming on any lands taken into trust for the Lytton Tribe throughout Sonoma County for the 22-year term of Sonoma County’s memorandum of agreement with the Tribe, and permanently prohibit gaming by the Lytton Tribe north of Highway 12 in Sonoma County.
In addition, in light of the fact that representatives from the County, the Tribe, and members of the community continue to explore potential improvements to the MOA, the Huffman bill was amended to ensure that any future changes or improvements to the Memorandum of Agreement negotiated between the Tribe and the County will be protected from any possible interference by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which under federal law must review and approve any agreements between tribes and local governments.
On his legislation and his ongoing work with county officials, community leaders and tribal representatives, Congressman Huffman released the following statement:
“Last year, members of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Lytton Tribe asked me to introduce legislation based on their agreement that would benefit all parties, address concerns about casinos in Sonoma, and protect a compromise agreement negotiated between the County and the tribe against possible interference by the BIA. The parties requested this legislation because the tribe has a pending land-to-trust application with the BIA which could result in a federal administrative decision that conflicts with the MOA; and because the BIA has authority to review and approve all tribal agreements with local governments. Either or both of these processes by the BIA could undermine or even invalidate the MOA.
I commend the parties for working together to find a good faith compromise. Too often, local governments and tribes approach tribal land-to-trust applications as adversaries, and the BIA is left to choose a winner and a loser. Even though the BIA process usually favors tribes, it can be a pyrrhic victory for a tribe when trust status is secured but relationships with local governments and neighbors are soured.
In this case, to the credit of both sides, the parties chose to negotiate a reasonable compromise. I truly believe it is a far preferable solution than what we have seen in other tribal-local land disputes in Sonoma County and elsewhere, and that’s why I introduced this bill last year.
“As promised, after listening to concerns raised by some members of the community and participating in numerous public and private meetings, I offered an amendment to strengthen my bill. With this amendment, we make it crystal clear that the Lytton Tribe will never be able to open a casino on the land in question or anywhere nearby. I’ve also amended the bill to extend federal protection to any improvements to the MOA that the parties may be able to negotiate in the months ahead. These changes provide reassurance for those who share my opposition to new casinos in Sonoma County.
“Since last summer, I have heard from hundreds of constituents including some who oppose the county’s MOA and others who support it. I’ve also heard from numerous local elected officials. To date, no elected official at any level has opposed the county’s MOA or my bill. That’s not because they are eager to see housing and commercial development on the Lytton Tribe’s property; it’s because they recognize that the alternative of a BIA process would likely be much worse, and that the MOA is a reasonable compromise.
To those who continue to believe that stopping my legislation would defeat the Lytton project, I could not disagree more. Their legal theories have been unsuccessful in other cases and the BIA itself disagrees with them. Indeed, in a recent letter on this subject the BIA gave no indication that they might deny the Lytton land-to-trust application, and in fact strongly suggested that the Lytton application could be approved before President Obama left office.
For these reasons, rather than withdraw my legislation as opponents have requested, I feel a sense of urgency to pass the legislation as soon as possible this year.
Sonoma County’s negotiated agreement with the Tribe – if it can be protected through my legislation -- is a better way to resolve this issue. It prohibits gaming throughout the County for the 22-year term of the agreement; provides for County General Plan compliance throughout most of the property; requires full environmental review (including public input) for projects that do not comply with the County’s General Plan; authorizes a neutral arbitrator to impose mitigation measures to resolve disputes regarding the off reservation environmental impacts of projects agreed to in the MOA; supports County services through collection of in lieu property tax payments and development fees; and waives sovereign immunity to enforce the Agreement. The MOA even requires that the Tribe preserve heritage trees, plant additional native oaks, and maintain the “scenic and rural character” in key areas. Without the passage of my bill, any or all of these negotiated tenets could be rejected by the BIA.
“Time is of the essence, and I will continue to work with my constituents, county and local elected officials, and with the Lytton Tribe to make sure that we are thoughtfully implementing this important agreement.”