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Odds on East Bay Casinos Starting to Look Longer By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday July 01, 2005

With Sen. Diane Feinstein’s bill to rescind the special legal status granted on Casino San Pablo and the abandonment of a second casino project in Oakland, the East Bay casino gamble is looking riskier by the day. 

The California Democrat’s legislation cleared Sen. John McCain’s Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on a 9-3 vote Wednesday. It now heads to the full Senate. 

If passed, the Lytton Rancheria band of Pomos would land back at square one in the off-reservation casino game, competing on a par with other tribes vying to establish potentially lucrative gambling operations in the heart of the East Bay. 

One other tribal group, the Lower Lake Rancheria band of Kois, has already abandoned the playing field, at least for now. That band had run into heavy opposition from numerous public officials after the Kois announced plans to build a major Las Vegas style hotel/casino operation next to Oakland International Airport. 

Despite promises that the resort would generate 4,400 new jobs and $30 million a year in mitigation payments for 20 years, the plan generated formidable opposition, with the East Bay Regional Parks District, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and the city councils of Oakland, Alameda and San Leandro expressing formal opposition and vowing to band together and wage legal war on the plan. 

The tribe announced its capitulation in a letter to the Oakland City Council distributed on June 10. 

While similar proposals for two tribal casinos in Richmond are undergoing a lengthy approval process that includes formal hearings and a serious environmental review, the Lyttons were given legislative and gubernatorial legs up on their plans to turn the ailing Casino San Pablo cardroom into a massive bigger-than-Vegas gambling palace. 

The principal boost had come from East Bay Congressional Rep. George Miller, a Democrat, who authored a unique amendment to the massive Omnibus Indian Advancement Act of 2000, backdating the Lytton Rancheria of Pomos claim on land they purchased that year to 1988, making it immediately eligible for a tribal casino. 

Tribes who acquired land after that day are required to the same lengthy process of scrutiny and hearings as have the backers of the Richmond proposals. 

Assemblymember Loni Hancock, a Democrat who represents northern Alameda and southern Contra Costa counties in the California Legislature, has been an outspoken opponent of urban casinos, and a particular critic of Miller’s legislative end-run. 

“We’re very encouraged by the 7-2 vote in McCain’s committee on legislation that would reverse Miller’s rider,” she said Wednesday. “It’s a very important step forward. It’s part of a groundswell of public opinion questioning off-reservation casinos located in urban areas.” 

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the other, earlier backer of the Lytton casino, had signed a compact with the tribe that would have given them the right to run a 5,000-slot-machine mega-casino—bigger than anything in Las Vegas—in exchange for a hefty share of the profits. 

The massive casino was expected to pay the state $200 million annually once it was up and running, Schwarzenegger’s office reported at the time of the agreement last year. 

The proposal generated massive opposition in which Hancock played a leading role, and the Governor, recognizing imminent defeat, didn’t present the pact to a legislature he knew would defeat it. 

The governor has since announced his opposition to urban casinos, which Hancock said would be a significant force in any future plans for the site. 

Meanwhile, the Lyttons have found an end-run around the approval process. Bingo games are permissible under state law, and machines that change the pace of the game from a slow hand-played game into the equivalent of a fast-playing slot will replace the slower card games now filling the casino. 

Intense opposition from surrounding cities and the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors has been met with indifference by the San Pablo City Council, which sees the gambling parlor as financial salvation for a city that might otherwise be forced to disincorporate. 

Meanwhile, the plans of Berkeley developer James D. Levine and the Guidiville Band of Pomos for a massive four-hotel, upscale shopping mall, Las Vegas-style showroom and a 2,500-to-3,000-slot casino at Point Molate are going through the federal approval process, strongly backed by the Richmond City Council. 

Similar efforts are underway for the Sugar Bowl casino-only facility in unincorporated North Richmond, with a year’s head-start on Levine. That proposal, backed by the same developer who sponsored the Oakland proposal, could be decided in the next few months.›