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Chumash development plan roils Santa Ynez Valley

Vincent Armenta, left, is tribal chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, and Richard Gomez is vice chairman. Critics of their development plan say that if the tribe wins the day, it could pave the way for land grabs by many of the state’s 100-plus Native American bands.
(Mel Melcon, Los Angeles Times)

SANTA YNEZ, Calif. — The Chumash Indians, first seen by explorers along the California coast in the fall of 1542, did not have running water on their tiny, sickle-shaped reservation until the 1960s.

Over time, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians clawed its way to sustainability, and more. The tribe harnessed Depression-era laws of self-governance, state and federal gambling initiatives. A casino opened in 2003. Healthcare is paid for. The tribe foots the bill for any recognized descendant who wants to go to college.

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“We are a poster child for tribes across the state and country,” said tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta. “You would think that people would be jumping up and down and saying: ‘Look at what those fine Indians did.’”

Instead, the tribe’s expansion plans have sparked a bitter dispute over the future of the Santa Ynez Valley and whether the biggest threat to the area’s eccentric charm and velvet countryside could be its earliest inhabitants.

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The dispute revolves around a thicket of arcane land-use rules. But in the end, it is about trust — at this point, there isn’t any, not between tribal leaders and a vociferous group of activists determined to stop them.

The tribe insists its plans are modest: Bursting at the seams on its 37-acre reservation, tribal leaders bought a chunk of nearby land and hope to build 143 homes there for members and descendants, at a lower density than some nearby developments. “Very tasteful,” Armenta said. “Very controlled.”

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But the tribe is attempting to assert a special jurisdiction over the land that would exclude the property and the development from many local rules and regulations and free it from property taxes.

As a result, community activists portray the proposal as menacing to the Santa Ynez Valley — with far-reaching consequences. They argue that the tribe could pull a bait and switch, promising modest homes but instead building a second casino or a massive resort, even some sort of industrial operation in the midst of horse farms and vineyards.

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The critics say the very character of the state is at stake, that if the tribe wins the day, it could pave the way for land grabs by many of the state’s 100-plus Native American bands. “This is a wave that could roll throughout California,” said Susan Jordan, director of the nonprofit California Coastal Protection Network in Santa Barbara.

The tribe, they argue, is abusing laws and rules that were written to lift Native Americans out of poverty.

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“They are a business,” said Frederick Steck, a private equity investor who lives near the land the tribe wants to develop. “Pay your taxes. Be a citizen of the country.... Join the party. We’re happy to have you.”

If the tribe is able to remove land that it buys from the tax rolls and avoid development regulations, Steck said, “Then we should give this country back completely. And say we’re sorry.”

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Back at the tribal headquarters, Armenta fell silent for a moment when asked about such attitudes. “If we were poor Indians,” he said, “would that make it better? Because we’re rich Indians we can’t do it? Is there something wrong with us being successful in business?”

Of the opposition, he said: “This is not about money. This is not about building houses.”

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So what’s it about? To that, Armenta said nothing. He merely pulled up his sleeve to reveal the one thing that community activists insist is not at issue: His darker skin tone.

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The conflict began, oddly enough, with the man who portrayed Davy Crockett: The late Fess Parker.

In 2004, the actor was no longer wearing a coonskin cap on TV. By then, he was an influential winemaker and real estate developer, and he teamed up with the tribe to announce plans for an ambitious development. Parker envisioned golf courses and hundreds of fancy homes, on land he owned — while invoking the tribe’s legal ability to avoid some local and state regulation.

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The project was widely viewed as out of character with a valley that guards its way of life zealously. It didn’t happen, but in 2010, weeks before Parker’s death, the tribe bought the same pastoral 1,400-acre tract from him for a reported $40 million.

Known as Camp 4 and still striped in parts with Parker’s grapevines, the land was near two of the region’s busiest thoroughfares, and roughly two miles from the tribe’s reservation.

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The tribe’s wealth has already shaped the Santa Ynez Valley beyond its most evident asset, the shimmering Chumash casino. The tribe has built gas stations and bought office buildings, day spas and restaurants, in Santa Ynez, Solvang and Buellton — on land not part of its reservation.

Robert F. Field, an activist opposed to the Camp 4 development, said the tribe went through the usual approval process for those projects.

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“When they have come into the community and played by the rules that apply to the rest of us, they’ve been terrific,” Field said.

Things are different this time, the activists contend.

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The tribe is fighting to use a land-transfer program called “fee to trust” to assert a similar tribal jurisdiction over the land as if it were part of its existing reservation.

If that happens, the tribe would no longer be subject to some local land-use rules and regulations. The land would also fall off the local tax rolls, currently valued at $83,000 a year, a number that would otherwise rise sharply once the tract was developed.

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“The land would be alienated to the same degree as if it were Portugal,” said Andi Culbertson, a land-use lawyer and resident of the valley.

“They could put an oil refinery in there,” Steck said.

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Several recent developments have ratcheted up the tension.

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The “fee to trust” process requires wading through an exhaustive bureaucracy. But the tribe can achieve the same thing through a second, faster route: an act of Congress.

A bill introduced in October by U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), whose district is in Northern California, and backed by bipartisan cosponsors would authorize the secretary of the Interior to take the land into trust on behalf of the tribe. The bill could land in front of a key House committee in early 2014.

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The area’s congressional representative, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), has argued instead for a local resolution to the dispute between the tribe and the county.

Then, some community activists questioned whether the Santa Ynez had ancestral ties to the 1,400 acres — a requirement for earning the benefits of the “fee-to-trust” program.

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Armenta said that left him flabbergasted. He noted that many visitors drive past an exit for Painted Cave Road, which leads to a park featuring sandstone art believed to date to the 1600s. “I wonder who painted those caves,” Armenta said. “Not the Dutch.”

As a result, Armenta said, the tribe petitioned the federal government to formally link its history with an even larger piece of land — an 11,500-acre swath that includes roughly 600 homes.

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Armenta said he was merely trying to prove a point. But the activists seized on the move as another step toward a “taking” of private property. They believe the tribe could buy land within the large area, place more pieces of land into trust and then pursue even more unfettered development.

“The question is: What can the guy next door do? And the answer is: Whatever he wants,” Field said.

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Armenta insists that the tribe has acted in good faith. The congressional bill, for example, prohibits the construction of a second casino to allay the community’s concerns. Armenta said the tribe has no interest in building a second casino.

The tribe has also offered to pay Santa Barbara County $1 million a year for the next decade, an effort to assuage concerns about removing Camp 4 from the tax rolls.

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Armenta acknowledged that the tribe could submit a development plan for the homes it wants to build as any developer would.

“But we’re not a typical developer. We’re a government,” he said. “The U.S. Constitution recognizes the tribe as a government — but Santa Barbara County can’t?”

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It could be a decade or more before construction of the Camp 4 homes would be complete. But some community leaders say the damage has already been done.

On a recent morning, Sharon Currie piloted her truck along the narrow roads slicing through the acreage at stake in the debate. Currie is the president of the Santa Ynez Valley Assn. of Realtors. In the last year, she has sold a spectrum of properties that represents the quirky appeal of the valley — from a $14,000 mobile home to a $9-million estate.

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But in the stretches surrounding Camp 4, sales are drying up, she said.

Realtors have struggled to find a way to formally disclose the uncertainty surrounding the land, Currie said. Sellers and brokers, she said, have become fearful of lawsuits. Currie nearly sold a $1.1-million “ranchette” in the area, but the buyer, concerned about the viability of a resale down the road, pulled out. The sellers of another home have reduced its price 13 times in the last year, and still no sale.

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“These houses — you couldn’t give them away,” Currie said. “Nobody is contesting the tribe’s right to develop. We’re contesting the way they are going about it. It’s a can of worms. It is the spearhead of a viral event.”

scott.gold@latimes.com


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