Tension rises over Chumash Indian plan for Santa Ynez Valley casino

Tension rises over Chumash Indian plan for Santa Ynez Valley casino
Members of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians celebrate with patrons during the August 2003 opening of their casino, which the tribe now plans to expand. (Los Angeles Times)

A tribe is preparing to invest more than $100 million in an expansion and upgrade of its Vegas-style casino in the Santa Ynez Valley, tripling the size of its hotel and opening the door to negotiations that could lead to a greater footprint in California's $7-billion Indian gambling industry.

But word of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians' expansion plan has ratcheted up tension and distrust between the Native Americans and some of their neighbors in Santa Barbara County.


"It's huge — a huge expansion," said Robert F. Field, a local resident. "An expansion of this size does definitely get people out of their chairs."

In a separate plan, the Chumash are seeking to develop 1,400 acres that are not part of their reservation, and to assert a special jurisdiction over that land that would remove it from the tax rolls and exclude it from many local development regulations.

Critics see the new casino expansion as part of the same development plan, one they say could spoil the quirky gentility of the Santa Ynez Valley and open the door to land grabs by recognized tribes across the state.

Tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta informed Santa Barbara County officials of the intent to expand the Chumash Casino Resort late last month.

The tribe intends to add 60,000 square feet to its 94,000-square-foot gaming floor and a 750-car garage to augment its 1,070 guest parking spaces. Food and beverage services would be improved, partly through the addition of a large food court.

Perhaps most significantly, the band plans to add 215 hotel rooms. Currently, the resort's hotel has 106 rooms and suites.

In an interview, Armenta stressed that while his tribe has voted to move forward with the expansion project, it is only beginning to piece together precise development plans.

But he said the tribe plans to invest more than $100 million — all Chumash money, with no outside investors. The hotel, currently four stories, probably would rise, he said. He said he's not sure how tall it would be, but said it would be built with the "least amount of visual impact as possible."

For now, the expansion of the gaming floor is intended merely to relieve congestion and improve the atmosphere inside the casino, Armenta said.

But the tribe's gambling compact with the state expires in 2020, and Armenta acknowledged that adding to the casino's 2,000 slot machines and 46 table games probably will be on the agenda when negotiations take place for a new agreement. The state would need to sign off on any additional games.

The expansion project would probably be completed within three years, after a state-monitored environmental review process.

"It just makes sense," he said. "It's going to be an interesting project."

Steve Lavagnino, chairman of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, said the plan is just business.

"The market dictates what's going to happen," Lavagnino said. "Apparently, they are making some people happy."


Not everyone, though.

The announcement comes as the Chumash band is seeking to, in effect, annex a piece of land about two miles away from its tiny reservation, which is midway between Santa Barbara and Lompoc.

The band bought the 1,400 acres, known as Camp 4, from the late actor and winemaker Fess Parker in 2010. Armenta has said plans for the tract are modest — building 143 homes for tribal members and descendants, at a lower density than some nearby developments.

The tribe is working through Congress and the federal government to use a land-transfer program called "fee to trust" for that property. The effect would be for the Chumash to assert a similar jurisdiction over the land as if it were part of its existing reservation.

That would allow the tribe to avoid many development regulations. Some local activists fear that the tribe could build a resort or an industrial operation on the land that would undermine the character of the area.

Critics have assailed the tribe's business plans in the past, and relations between the Chumash and some neighbors have become tense. Now, those same critics see the new expansion plans as being connected to the controversial Camp 4 proposal.

Field, the resident, said that many in the community fear the development plan is a "false front … a tactic to achieve something else."

The tribe is negotiating with the federal government by arguing that it does not have room on its reservation to build enough houses. If it uses up even more room on its reservation to expand the casino, that argument could become easier. Field compared it to a man who kills his parents, and then asks for mercy because he is an orphan.

"It's puzzling," said Gerry Shepherd, another neighbor and a board member of a group of concerned residents. "We're wondering: What are they really doing here?"

Armenta called the theories "ridiculous and adolescent." If anything, he said, the casino expansion plans should help assuage critics of the Camp 4 development — because one of the persistent allegations has been that the tribe is secretly planning to build a second casino there. That makes even less sense, Armenta pointed out, if the tribe is investing so heavily in its existing casino.

"The very fact that they have to expand is indicative of how much people enjoy what they provide," Lavagnino said. But, he acknowledged, some neighbors will never see the expansion as a simple matter of commerce.