Considering how much money may be at stake, it was inevitable that the increasingly nasty fight between a Santa Barbara Indian tribe and its neighbors over a big parcel of undeveloped land would attract outside interest.
Enter Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale). Last October, LaMalfa introduced a bill ordering the government to take the parcel into trust, effectively adding 1,400 acres to the reservation of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Mission Indians. That would place a tract once envisioned as the site of a big resort beyond the taxing power or land-use regulations of the county.
It's not unusual for members of Congress to introduce special bills for their friends and constituents. But the Chumash reservation is 500 miles from LaMalfa's district. Also, the local political representatives and the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors oppose the transfers. And according to LaMalfa's local newspaper, the Redding Searchlight, he hasn't provided similar help to Indians among his own constituents.
LaMalfa's spokesman, Kevin Eastman, says LaMalfa merely wants to ensure that the Chumash tribe is "able to build homes for its members on land it purchased for that purpose, just as any American should be able to. The tribe has really gone out of its way to be a good neighbor ... but so far the county has refused to work with it."
It's actually much more complicated. LaMalfa, a small-government conservative, has injected himself into one of the most contentious issues between Indian tribes and their local communities: how private land is annexed into reservations. His action also hints at the acrid role of political money, of which tribes like the Chumash, who operate a thriving casino, have lots. And it certainly hasn't improved relations between the tribe and the county.
"People here think that LaMalfa should be minding his own business," says Santa Barbara County Supervisor Doreen Farr.
The tribe says it reached out to its Democratic Rep. Lois Capps, who told it she preferred that the dispute be worked out locally. "But it's difficult to work this out at the local level," says tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta, "when we have a county Board of Supervisors that continues to vote not to meet with the tribe."
That's when the tribe called LaMalfa.
The disputed parcel is a bucolic 1,400 acres in the Santa Ynez Valley about four miles east of Solvang and 22 miles northeast of Santa Barbara. It was formerly owned by the late actor and vintner Fess Parker, who made his name playing Davy Crockett on TV. As my colleague Scott Gold has reported, in 2004 Parker and the tribe proposed a residential and golf resort on the land, known as Camp 4. That plan fell through, but just before Parker's death in 2010, the tribe bought Camp 4 for a reported $40 million.
The next step provoked all the controversy: The tribe applied for a "fee-to-trust" transfer of the land.
Under this procedure, the federal government takes over land privately owned by tribal members and holds it in trust. Technically, it becomes federally owned, but in effect, it is annexed to the reservation. Like other federal holdings, it's no longer subject to local land-use or environmental regulations, and it's taken off the local tax rolls, generating no property or sales tax.
The process dates back to a 1934 law designed to aid homeless Native Americans and rebuild tribal landholdings destroyed by a century of roughshod federal policy. Today it's widely detested. Tribes complain that the bureaucratic procedures of the Bureau of Indian Affairs take too long. Local communities say they have almost no voice in deliberations, which means that their zoning rules and tax base can be shattered with a single application.
The BIA leans decisively toward the tribes. A 2012 study published in the Pepperdine Law Review called the process "extreme rubber-stamping." Of 111 applications submitted from 2001 through 2011 to the agency's Pacific office, 100% were approved.
One reason may be that the agency's office is funded by money indirectly provided by the California tribes and operates under an "oversight committee" of tribal representatives.
The tribes, moreover, have aggressively discouraged California state officials from weighing in on fee-to-trust applications. Last June, Robert Smith, chairman of the Pala Band of Mission Indians and of the tribal consortium overseeing the BIA office, lectured Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris that comments she submitted objecting to applications were "attacks" that fostered "discord between tribal Nations and the State of California." He expressed hope that the two entities could "continue to interact productively."
In the case of Camp 4, it's hard to see grounds for any productive interaction. The Chumash want to place 143 residential lots on the 1,400-acre property to provide housing for current and future members. They can't do that on their existing 130-acre reservation, of which they say two-thirds is undevelopable hillside and swamp and includes the Chumash Casino Resort. About 10% of the band's 140 enrolled members live on the reservation now, Armenta says.
County officials and neighbors of Camp 4 believe the tribe ultimately will develop the land much more extensively. The Santa Ynez valley isn't all pristine wilderness, Armenta says: "Are they afraid that someone's going to do what they've done?" He also rejects arguments that the county stands to lose millions in tax revenue, calling that "creative accounting." Under its current agricultural zoning, he points out, Camp 4 produces property taxes of $83,000 a year.
The tribe is also irked that county supervisors are treating it like just another private developer, and not a sovereign nation with a prior claim to the land. "We weren't put in the middle of Santa Barbara County," Armenta told me. "Santa Barbara County was put around us."
But Farr, the county supervisor, says that when it comes to Camp 4, the Chumash are merely private developers, since the land isn't yet part of the reservation. On matters that concern the reservation, like the tribe's planned casino expansion, "our discussions with them are government-to-government." The Chumash also own hotels and other properties, and on those they've been treated the same as other private landowners.
The only clear conclusion from all this is that the fee-to-trust system has become an impediment to positive relations between tribes and counties. "We think they should be encouraged to work out issues of local zoning and effects on surrounding areas," says Christopher Lee, a land use expert at the California State Assn. of Counties. "But the way the process is set up now doesn't encourage resolution of the issues."
That's what makes Rep. LaMalfa's interference in the Santa Ynez valley so useless. As a member of the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, he could play a positive role in remaking the process so it brings parties together instead of driving them apart.
But it's proper to question whether his goal is good policy rather than getting a piece of the band's political largess: In the last two congressional election cycles, the Chumash donated about $326,000 to candidates and spent nearly $1.2 million on lobbying, most recently for LaMalfa's bill. They haven't contributed anything to LaMalfa yet, but political quid pro quos don't always unfold in a set time frame.
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Read his blog, the Economy Hub, at latimes.com/business/hiltzik, reach him at email@example.com, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @hiltzikm on Twitter.