Archive » July 12, 2012
Supes clear path for Chumash annexation
By Jeremy Foster, Staff Writer
In a blow to opponents of a controversial land annexation sought by the Chumash tribe, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted not to appeal a federal decision allowing the tribe to place a 6.9-acre parcel into its reservation.
The outcome of Tuesday’s marathon meeting was a victory for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians and a setback for several local community groups, who plan to appeal the decision without the board’s backing. They have until Tuesday, July 17, to do so.
Tribal leaders say they plan to develop a cultural center and museum and a 3.5-acre commemorative park that will highlight the history of the Chumash people and act as a preservation buffer for the archeological site. Revenue for upkeep of the property relies on the construction of a 27,600-square-foot, two-story retail building – which the opponents fear will be an extension of the casino’s operations.
Nearly a decade ago, the tribe petitioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs to annex the parcel, which lies opposite from the Chumash Casino and Resort along Highway 246, into federal trust. It got BIA approval in 2005, but the case was appealed in February 2010 by the community groups Preservation of Los Olivos, or P.O.L.O., and the Santa Ynez Valley Concerned Citizens. They challenged the legitimacy of the tribe’s right to annex the land, citing a 2009 Supreme Court ruling in Carcieri v. Salazar that restricts the Interior Department (which oversees the BIA) from taking land into trust for tribes that were federally recognized after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. The BIA used the ruling to make a decision to remand the 2005 case to the regional director, Amy Dutschke, thus opening the door for the county to appeal.
In late May, the BIA ruled that the tribe’s proposal doesn’t violate the Carcieri ruling because the tribe was under federal jurisdiction when it voted in an election on Dec. 18, 1934. It noted that the Santa Ynez reservation was established in 1906. The ruling also stated that while there has been no clear definition of “under federal jurisdiction,” the bureau’s secretary has the authority to not only interpret the phrase, but do so in the favor of individual tribes.
The BIA emphasized the relationship between the United States and the tribe since at least 1906, when the reservation was established. P.O.L.O. contended that the tribe did not have a reservation in 1934 when 20 tribal members voted to accept the Indian Reorganization Act, which provides land into trust for general purposes other than gaming. The appellants contended that the tribe’s “lack of a tribal land base” undermined its jurisdictional status under the Act. Pulling from precedent in other tribal cases, the BIA rejected this argument and said a tribe could still be under federal jurisdiction despite not having a reservation or trust lands in 1934.
Tuesday’s meeting saw more than 400 people, mostly tribal members, pack the board’s chambers, flood into the hallways and spill into the outdoor courtyard at the Betteravia Government Center in Santa Maria for the three-hour-long hearing.
Third District supervisor Doreen Farr, a longtime critic of the tribe’s annexation plans, brought the item before the board. From the outset, she stressed that what was at issue was not the tribe’s federally recognized status but “potentially severe land use and fiscal issues that any jurisdiction has to be aware of.” Placing the land into trust would make it exempt from county planning regulations, as well as property taxes and other county taxes and fees. Farr said the cumulative financial loss to the county could be $23 million to $33 million for the 6.9 acres over a period of 50 years.
The tribe’s plan for a cultural center, museum and park could be met through the county’s land-use process, Farr noted, and that “if the application had been submitted to the county when the issue first arose, the buildings would have been constructed long ago, and the community, the tribe and the greater area would have been the great beneficiary.”
Earlier in the meeting, tribe Chairman Vincent Armenta castigated Farr for bringing the issue to the board. “To appeal this decision is to basically say our tribe does not exist,” Armenta fumed. “How dare you!”
“This is a tragedy,” he added. “I cannot believe what I have to go through in modern-day society because you got several phone calls and e-mails from a radical group that has opposed everything our tribe has tried to do.” Tribal business committee member David Dominguez added, “We just can’t seem to get a 3rd District supervisor who understands that building a solid government-to-government relationship with the tribe would benefit the entire community.”
Farr said she’s heard broad-based concern, not only from Valley residents, but from people throughout the county. In contrast, 5th District supervisor Steve Lavagnino said he hadn’t received a single phone call regarding the fee-to-trust issue. He joined supervisors Joni Gray and Salud Carbajal, who dismissed the appeal as “wasting taxpayer dollars,” in voting against filing an appeal. Supervisor Wolf said though she respects the tribe, she also respects the community and the community plan. “If we file an appeal, it’s not an outrageous act,” she said. “I think it’s a prudent thing to do for our community.”
Lavagnino acknowledged the county would lose revenue if the parcel goes into trust, but he wasn’t willing to get into “the business of chasing bad money after more bad money.” He also took issue with stances taken by some members of P.O.L.O. who, he said, have claimed some current tribal members are not, in fact, descendants of the Chumash.
“I believe a majority of the people that are part of the opposition don’t hold these views – I hope they don’t hold that as their belief system – but unfortunately, I can’t put myself in a position where I’m going to be questioning people’s ethnicity and disrespecting their heritage. I feel if we join this, that’s the road we’re going down.”
Many tribal members told of a history of racism directed at them as well as a gradual loss of self-identity, which the museum and cultural center would help restore. “I grew up with a clouded essence of who I was, which was really difficult for me,” said one tribal member. “I had kids in schools tug on my braids and call me Indian. I don’t want that for my children who go to school in the Valley. I would love to be able to walk our ancestral lands with our children and appreciate the history it represents.”
Tribal member Elaine Snyder said for 30 years she’s seen the Chumash culture nearly destroyed. “Some people here say we have everything we need – we have money. But our heart is the land. That’s what we want. Acceptance. And on the land we will put out history. That’s what the museum means to us.”
Opponents fear that once the 6.9 acres goes into trust, more commercial endeavors will be expanded, including casino operations. “We are not opposed to the tribe, but we are opposed to gambling in the Valley,” said Solvang mayor Jim Richardson. “This fee-to-trust is the camel’s nose in the tent. Many of us are afraid that reservation expansion means gambling expansion.”
Another Valley resident said that placing the property under county regulation would ensure that whatever is built conforms to the Valley’s rural character. “We do not want to see another Southwestern casino-style project on the entrance to our town in Santa Ynez,” she said. “People need to work together to get the right product.”
Looming over the 6.9 acres is a pending application for a 5.8-acre fee-to-trust transfer and the 1,400-acre property known as Camp Four. The land, purchased in 2010 from the late Fess Parker, who intended to build a resort, is slated for tribal housing, according to the tribe.
Gray noted that half the county – between Vandenberg Air Force Base and the Los Padres National Forest – is already federal land.
“The argument here is the argument of law,” Gray stated, referring to BIA’s decision. “And the choice is what is in the best interest of Santa Barbara County? The best interest is to not waste time, energy and money on appealing one of the most strongly written opinions I have ever read in my life.”