Live oaks, vineyards, rolling hills and condors define the Santa Ynez Valley, north of Santa Barbara between the San Rafael and Santa Ynez mountains, near Los Padres National Forest.
The valley was the backdrop for the movie “Sideways,” and it remains one of California’s gems. For 10 agonizing years, the valley’s residents, merchants and Santa Barbara County officials labored to craft a community plan protecting the area’s pastoral character. They set goals for development, infrastructure, agriculture and open space.
Now Congress is about to blow a huge hole in that plan by helping a single wealthy special interest group — the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Mission Indians — build a massive development in the valley over the vehement objections of residents.
The battle has implications for all of California, as well as the rest of the country.
The Santa Ynez Chumash, a tribe of fewer than 140 enrolled members, reportedly earn $300 million a year from their reservation-based casino near the town of Santa Ynez. The tribe also owns more than 20 off-reservation properties; hotels, restaurants, gas stations, apartments — and a 1,427-acre parcel of open space nearly two miles from the casino.
Now the Chumash want to build 143 new homes for tribal members and a 12,000-square-foot. community center with parking for 200 cars on the open-space parcel — known as Camp 4 — which is supposed to remain largely agricultural land with only 14 residences under the valley plan.
Predictably, county officials and local citizen groups have fought to stop or scale down the development. The Chumash have refused; as a sovereign nation, the tribe contends it doesn’t have to adhere to local, state and federal regulations.
Tensions boiled over in 2017. On the last day of of the Obama administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs quietly granted what’s called a “fee-to-trust” petition from the Chumash to effectively annex Camp 4 to their reservation more than a mile and a half away.
Almost immediately Santa Barbara County and others filed federal lawsuits challenging the BIA’s decision. Then the Chumash began playing hardball.
The tribe persuaded Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), whose district is 430 miles north of the valley, to introduce a bill “affirming” the BIA’s decision and, more importantly, blocking all legal challenges.
It then used the pending bill to muscle the Santa Barbara County supervisors into dropping their lawsuit and going along with a deal so one-sided as to be absurd: The tribe won’t build a casino at Camp 4, but it can proceed with its housing and community center plans without any more local input.
No detailed national or California environmental review. No county property taxes, only a paltry annual fee. No limits on how much the tribe can draw from the region’s main aquifer underlying Camp 4. No promises the Chumash aren’t clearing out its reservation housing for yet another expansion of the their casino complex, which already floods a town of 4,400 residents with traffic from 9,000 outside visitors daily.
The kicker: After 22 years, even the minimal guarantees in the deal sunset and the tribe can put what it wants — including industrial or large-scale commercial development — at Camp 4. A casino is about the only thing that would not be allowed, and even that could be permitted if the Chumash go back to Congress for approval.
LaMalfa’s bill, HR 1491, enshrines the annexation and the 22-year-deal. It has passed the House and it could be voted on any day by the full Senate after the July 4 recess.
I’ve been tracking the Camp 4 struggle for years. As a former elected representative in state, local and national government, I’ve always strongly believed in the virtue of local control.
I’m troubled that Congress is acting like a zoning board, micromanaging the affairs of residents 3,000 miles away. And I find it just plain wrong that through special interest meddling, Washington would open the door to unregulated development in one of California ’s most special places.
The Chumash power play — if it works — will encourage other California tribes to bigfoot, rather than work with, their neighbors. More than a handful of similar leap-frog developments for casino-rich tribes in California are in the BIA fee-to-trust pipeline.
There’s still time for Congress to act responsibly. It could drop the nonsensical 22-year expiration date in the Chumash bill. Or it could hit pause altogether and fix the BIA’s broken fee-to-trust program so that it respects the private property rights of everyone when land is annexed to reservations.
Until that happens, Washington will continue to allow uncontrolled tribal development that defies local controls and common sense.
State and local governments beware: Your communities could be next.
Pete Wilson is a former Assembly member, mayor of San Diego, U.S. senator and governor of California.