Cows not Casinos

SONOMA COUNTY / $17 million deal protects marshes, ranchland / Tribe gave land trust option to buy after considering casino

Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer

Published 4:00 am PDT, Tuesday, October 12, 2004

A scenic sweep of farmland and marshes straddling Highway 37 in Sonoma County — once eyed for a gambling casino — will become permanent open space in a $17 million agreement brokered by North Bay land preservationists.Top of Form

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The deal signals the end of a short-lived plan to build a gambling mecca among the hayfields and wetlands that form the northern shore of San Pablo Bay. Now, leaders of the Sonoma Land Trust are planning a $30 million restoration project.

The land includes 648 acres of the Dickson Ranch at Tolay Creek — one of the last active farms left on the bay — and 1,679 acres owned by the North Point Joint Venture, a partnership of private investors that had considered selling to an American Indian tribe for a casino.

The new acquisition, announced last week, lies among several other publicly owned parcels, including shorebird habitat owned by the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge and 1,400 acres west of Lakeville Road managed by the Sonoma Land Trust. Ralph Benson, executive director of the trust, said the deal helps protect one of the most significant amalgams of open space left anywhere around San Francisco Bay. Thousands of drivers survey the scene daily from a bridge across the Petaluma River on Highway 37, just east of Interstate 101.

“With this acquisition, it means that nearly everything your eye takes in from that high point will be land protected for agriculture, open space and restoration,” Benson said. “I can’t think of any other place in the close-in Bay Area where you get this pastoral, open view.”   The land is home to burrowing owls, California clapper rails, salt marsh harvest mice, Suisun shrews and California red-legged frogs — all imperiled species — as well as the rare Callippe silverspot butterfly, saline sac- clover and the popcorn flower.

The casino deal was defeated after environmental groups joined with residents, arguing that wetlands clean water, reduce flooding and provide wildlife habitat. The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria said it had made a mistake, and gave the land trust the option to buy. The tribe is attempting to locate a casino outside Rohnert Park.

The Betty and Gordon Moore Foundation contributed $7.9 million for purchase and restoration, which, in effect, matches the $8 million approved by the state Wildlife Conservation Board from Proposition 50, passed by voters in 2002 for water quality and coastal protection projects. The Sonoma Board of Supervisors gave $2.6 million, and $1.5 million was raised by donations — including $75,000 from the tribe and three $100,000 gifts from three families in Marin and Sonoma counties.

The Dickson Ranch, located south of Highway 37 between the Petaluma River and Sears Point, has been held since 1938 by a farming family whose roots here go back to the 1850s. Fred Dickson, 57, will continue to grow wheat and oats and will help manage the ranch for the Sonoma Land Trust. Eventually, the levees that hold back the bay waters will come down and the land will be returned to wetlands.