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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on October 9th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 31 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 31

Trust issues: The Chumash vs. Santa Barbara County controversy over Camp 4


A fence line separates Camp 4 from the rest of the Santa Ynez Valley. The hubbub over a recently filed fee-to-trust application on the property has many neighbors upset and worried about the valley’s future.

Almost all of the modular-type homes originally installed on the Santa Ynez Reservation in the 1970s look different now. Some were rebuilt and remodeled, others were torn down and replaced, but all of them are stuck on the same plot of land they came with.

Those parcels of reservation earth are barely big enough to hold the buildings on top of them. Driving through the neighborhood after traveling into town on Highway 246, visitors feel almost claustrophobic.

Most reservation residents could literally touch their neighbor’s house if they stuck their arm out a side window of their home. The yards are virtually non-existent, and the street is barely wide enough for two cars to pass.

After touring the 70-home neighborhood, this reporter found it easy to understand why members of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians desire a little more space—a property with a longer fence line and land they can stretch their legs on. Although every inch of the reservation isn’t developed, the Chumash are currently at capacity on their 137-acre government-issued plot.

Sam Cohen, who deals with legal and governmental affairs for the tribe, said the Chumash simply don’t have the land they need to develop the way they want to. Of 136 Chumash tribal members and 1,300 lineal descendants, only 17 percent are able to live within the reservation’s only neighborhood.

“The current reservation is a riverbed,” Cohen said. “A third of it is a swamp, the other third is slopes, and the other third is—every inch is built on.”

A plot of land south of the intersection of highways 154 and 246, also known as Camp 4, is the Chumash’s hoped-for key to fixing their space issues. And they want to do it by having the nearly 1,400-acre parcel placed into trust with the federal government. This “fee-to-trust” process would deed the property over to the government on the tribe’s behalf.

It’s not a simple process, and the tribe has pushed out pages and pages of documentation in the form of two separate applications: the fee-to-trust application and an environmental assessment dealing with development plans for the site. Both of them were filed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) earlier this year.

When the tribe gave notice to Santa Barbara County officials that it had filed a fee-to-trust application on Camp 4, it seemed like the whole county went berserk—but that’s not an unusual reaction to tribal development plans. The issue was magnified at the Aug. 20 Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors meeting, when the board decided against engaging in direct negotiations with the tribe—in other words, neglecting to treat it as a sovereign government entity in fee-to-trust discussions. The item landed on the agenda in response to a letter written to Supervisor Salud Carbajal by Chumash tribal chairman Vincent Armenta requesting government-to-government dialogue with the county.

Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr, in whose district sits the reservation, said while there always seems to be controversy surrounding tribal development plans, tensions have never presented like this before.

“The Camp 4 fee-to-trust issue has ignited a level of concern within the Santa Ynez Valley, and even extending outside the valley, like no other tribal issue in the past,” Farr said. “It’s a total non-partisan issue. … People are very concerned.”

She said people are concerned about land-use issues, water rights, mineral rights, and the loss of tax revenue, and what all of those things could mean for the community.

Santa Ynez Valley dissenters showed up in force at the Aug. 20 meeting to speak out against both the tribe’s fee-to-trust application and engaging in government talks. A tribal consolidation area plan approved by the BIA in June also came to light and was discussed at length during the meeting. That plan labels approximately 11,000 acres in the Santa Ynez Valley as potential land for future tribal acquisition and sounded off a rallying cry across the valley.

Although nobody apparently quite understands what the plan actually means, a great many people seem to be nervous about it. The latest installment of Chumash-community drama over tribal plans came when the county filed an appeal of the consolidation plan in late September.

Farr said that without approval of a tribal consolidation area plan, the Chumash would have a harder time placing Camp 4 in fee-to-trust.

Tribal government affairs front man Cohen disagrees and thinks the trust application will go through with or without a consolidation plan in place.

The quick answer is those are both guesses, because it’s up to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to make the final call—that is, if and when the federal government comes out of shutdown mode.


Promised parcels

Rolling hills peppered with oak trees and grazing livestock make up the majority of the Camp 4 property. An equestrian facility and 300 acres of grapevines make up the rest. The tribe bought the property from the descendants of Fess Parker in 2010. Since then, the Chumash have made several attempts to get the property placed in fee-to-trust.

Cohen said that when the tribe purchased the property, every tribal member alive at the time—143 in all—was promised a land assignment on it. That number has now dropped to 136 members.

Development plans in the Camp 4 environmental assessment take a few different forms, but most follow one of two parcel allotment strategies. In some versions, land assignments are created in 5-acre parcels, while in others those parcels take the shape of 1-acre plots. The rest of the land is designated for a variety of uses, including open space, riparian habitat, oak tree protection corridors, and a new administrative and health center.

If Camp 4 makes it through the planning hoops and is held in trust for the Chumash by the federal government, it would become a new section of the current reservation. The tribe would have complete sovereignty over the land, its uses, and the people who live on it.

This complete control over land use is a major sticking point for most of the concerned valley residents. Questions about whether the Chumash secretly have plans to put up another casino or install a resort and golf course came up at the Aug. 20 meeting. Another big issue aired over and over again during public comment is that fee-to-trust would mean a loss of tax revenue for the county.

As a way of placating some of the concerns, the tribe offered to pay the county $1 million a year over a 10-year period in lieu of taxes. It also offered to sign a binding agreement on how land would be used on Camp 4. Cohen describes it as a “come-out offer” designed to get both parties to the negotiating table.

“We figured that was good faith, [a] good first offer,” Cohen said. “We never imagined that they would completely ignore us.”

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians has roots that fan out across the Santa Ynez Valley. The tribe recently had those recognized through a Tribal Consolidation Area Plan approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

When the Board of Supervisors voted not to engage in government talks with the Chumash, it essentially said no to any negotiations that could have taken place with regard to Camp 4. What the board did do was tell the tribe it could talk to the Santa Barbara County Planning Department about development, just like any other property owner would.

Camp 4 is agriculturally zoned, which means limited development is allowed on the property. When Cohen met with county planners in September, they told him the tribe would need to ask the Board of Supervisors to pass a general plan amendment in order to change Camp 4’s zoning laws.

“It’s like an act of Congress to get a general plan amendment,” Cohen said. “In a perfect world, the tribe and the county meet to form an agreement.”

He said it seems like the county’s banking on the fee-to-trust application being denied. But if it ends up getting approved, the county loses any ability to negotiate directly with the tribe.


Engaging the other side

The decision not to engage in government-to-government talks with the Chumash wasn’t a unanimous one; the vote was 3-2, with 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal and 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino dissenting.

“Between the community and the Chumash, there have always been concerns. They’ve always been there,” Carbajal said. “To not have communication is to not want to resolve issues.”

The letter the tribe sent to the Board of Supervisors in August wasn’t its first attempt at reaching out to the county, either. Armenta, who penned the request for government-to-government talks, pointed out in the letter that the tribe waited 800 days for a response from the county on Camp 4 fee-to-trust plans.

Supervisor Farr said county officials didn’t speak with the tribe about Camp 4 during that time period because they didn’t have a clear picture of development plans for the property.

“It wasn’t until a month ago that we had some kind of an idea of what their plans were,” Farr told the Sun in September. “The main stumbling block to starting a conversation was that there wasn’t a complete project on the table.”

She added that if the fee-to-trust is approved, the county should be able to come to an agreement with the tribe to mitigate the environmental and fiscal impacts made by the development.

Supervisor Carbajal doesn’t think waiting is the right thing to do. He believes holding out for a decision on the fee-to-trust process puts the “cart before the horse.” He said communication is key to getting things on the table before major decisions are made. He added that other California communities have managed to work through their differences on tribal issues and negotiate some sort of an agreement.

“Those are the models for governments and communities to come together with tribes and make a decision,” Carbajal said. “That’s something we should strive for.”

One such community is San Diego County, which successfully completed contract negotiations with the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation over a 1,400-acre fee-to-trust acquisition. Negotiations wrapped up in January of this year, and the parcel was officially annexed to the Sycuan Reservation in July. (Read a copy of the 2012 agreement.)

Fee-to-trust acquisitions are nothing new for San Diego County, which is home to 18 tribal governments and 10 casinos. Although each application comes with its share of debate, the county didn’t engage in direct negotiations with a tribe over a proposed annexation until the Sycuan’s most recent application, said Eric Lardy with the San Diego County Department of Planning and Land Use.

“We treat all interaction with tribes on a case-by-case basis, depending on what the proposal is in front of the county,” Lardy said. “This is the only one that there’s been an agreement for, and it was controversial.”

He said several tribes have successfully acquired fee-to-trust land over the last decade.

“There have been more than I can count,” Lardy said. “There’s a lot of interaction [among the county and the tribes].”

The sheer size of the parcel the Sycuan tribe wanted to acquire set it apart from the rest of the applications and caught the attention of more than just the surrounding communities, said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. Jacob’s district contains many of the county’s reservations and tribal activity.

She said the Sycuan annexation was a huge loss to the county for the same reasons mention in Santa Barbara County: tax-revenue loss, lack of land-use control, and unmitigated impacts from development.

“The agreement helps to compensate for some of that,” Jacob said. “Sycuan was really good about sitting down and coming to an agreement with us. They didn’t have to. We got quite a bit out of it, considering we could have got zero.”

San Diego County gave a little and the Sycuan tribe gave a little. The tribe is giving the county some money in lieu of taxes over the next seven years to fix some road issues off the reservation. The tribe also agreed to designate a public-use walking trail easement on the land. Additionally, tribal leaders will notify the county and engage in good-faith negotiations if the tribe decides to change land-use plans for the newly acquired portion of the reservation. In return, the county pulled its appeal of another Sycuan project and agreed not to appeal the fee-to-trust approval.

However, Jacob said she doesn’t think the negotiations make up for the losses. She said fee-to-trust acquisitions have negative impacts on the communities in which they occur.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “From what I’ve heard, the BIA is just OK’ing fee-to-trust applications as fast as they can.”

San Diego didn’t actually engage in talks with the tribe until the BIA gave the county a notice of intent to put the 1,400-acres into fee-to-trust for the Sycuan tribe.

Sycuan Assistant Tribal Manager Adam Day said both sides decided it was best to reach a middle ground in lieu of dealing with a lengthy appeal process and racking up attorney fees.

“They looked at us and we looked at them and said, ‘We don’t want to fight anymore,’” Day said.


Consolidation means what?

The original Santa Ynez Reservation stood at 99 acres, but over the last few decades, the Chumash have managed to acquire roughly 40 more acres through fee-to-trust. The difference between those pieces of land and Camp 4 isn’t just size, it’s also location relative to the reservation.

The tribe is keen on dividing up some of the Camp 4 property in either 1-acre or 5-acre land assignments, to give each of its members property with room to breath and space to build a home.

Thus far, Chumash land annexations have been contiguous with or adjacent to the reservation. Camp 4 sits a mile or so away from the current reservation. This is a big reason to have a tribal consolidation area plan, according to many outspoken community members.

One of those dissenters is Sharon Currie, president of the Santa Ynez Valley Association of Realtors. Currie said a consolidation plan is the federal government’s way of marking what’s considered to be on the reservation.

So, according to Currie, the federal government considers 11,000 acres in the Santa Ynez Valley to be part of the Santa Ynez Reservation—the Chumash just don’t own it yet, and it hasn’t been put into trust by the government.

“If the tribe buys or already owns anything in the TCA, it’s considered as if it was on the reservation,” Currie said. “So a fee-to-trust application is handled differently; it’s fast-tracked.”

Chumash government front man Cohen maintains that even without the consolidation approval, Camp 4 meets enough of the requirements for fee-to-trust. On the application, the tribe has made the case that there isn’t enough space on the current reservation for much-needed housing; the Chumash need to have sovereignty over the land so they can have the self-determining right given to tribes by the federal government; and the tribe needs the land for further economic development capabilities.

Add to that list the fact that Camp 4 is within the Tribal Consolidation Area approved by the BIA, and you have four reasons to put the land in fee-to-trust.

“We fit under all four, so [if] you knock off one, you don’t really derail the process, in my opinion,” Cohen said. “You just need one.”

Cohen describes a consolidation plan as more of a historical claim to the land. It just recognizes that at one point in history, the Chumash inhabited and owned the land.

“Our point is, we say the aboriginal territory of the tribe extends from Malibu to Paso Robles, but we have a personal connection to the land in the TCA,” Cohen said. “The TCA is an aspirational goal.”

He said reclaiming the entire aboriginal territory is not something the Chumash actually expect to accomplish, and any future land acquisitions have to go through the same process as past land acquisitions. The land has to be bought, then development plans need to be made, and then the Chumash need to make the case for fee-to-trust placement to the federal government.

The Sun made several attempts to contact the BIA to talk about the consolidation plan. Amy Dutschke, Pacific regional director for the BIA, told the Sun in August that the plan isn’t a legally binding document, but rather it outlines what the tribe wants in terms of future land acquisition and consolidation.

A representative from the BIA office left the Sun a voicemail before the federal government shutdown, saying the bureau couldn’t comment on the consolidation plan because it had been appealed to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals.

In the meantime, Santa Ynez Realtor Currie said the 654 privately owned properties within the consolidation plan are in limbo because buyers and sellers alike don’t know or understand what it means to be within such an area. She said she’s had one buyer pull out of a property she was selling because of the plan, and she knows of one other Realtor who’s had the same problem.

“If a parcel goes into fee-to-trust, how does it affect the properties next to them? We have no control over what [the tribe] does to that land,” Currie said. “You could wake up with a parking lot next door, or a 7-11.

“Our worry is that they will pick up parcels in their TCA map, fast-track them to fee-to-trust, and [we’ll] lose control of them,” she added. “People are afraid to buy properties inside the TCA map.”

Cohen said these thoughts are all just fear talking; the tribe’s not going to walk around swooping parcels out from under people and putting up parking lots. He points to such longtime opponents of the tribe as Preservation of Los Olivos (POLO) as using fear tactics to rally the troops for more litigation.

“The way you raise money is through fear,” Cohen said. “So the TCA is their next way to raise money by fear-mongering.”

POLO announced its appeal of the consolidation plan on its website in September, saying, “If allowed, this opens the door to claims in Santa Barbara County and San Luis Obispo County—or more.

“All other tribes across the state of California could also make claims to thousands of acres of land,” the website says.


Uncertain future

Oct. 7 marked the deadline for the public to submit comments to the BIA on the Camp 4 environmental assessment, and the county has asked the BIA to extend the comment deadline on the actual fee-to-trust application. County leaders have also asked for a hold on the fee-to-trust application decision until a determination is made on the consolidation plan appeal.

With the feds in shutdown mode until Congress can come to a consensus on whether to fund the nation or not, uncertainty bloomed when it came to questions of progress being made on either application over the coming weeks. The Board of Supervisors plans to discuss the issue during its Oct. 15 meeting.

“Regarding the fee-to-trust application itself, the BIA did grant a 15-day extension for comments on the application,” Supervisor Farr wrote to her constituents on Oct. 7. “The new deadline is Nov. 7. However, the decision whether to comment on or appeal the application by the Board of Supervisors will still be made on Oct. 15 as originally calendared. Should the board decide to appeal, this would give staff sufficient time to prepare the necessary documentation and submit it prior to Nov. 7. The Oct. 15 Board of Supervisors hearing will be held in Santa Barbara.”

What’s clear is that there’s a major disagreement among the tribe, the county, and community members over what’s right and what’s fair, and emotions from past, present, and future issues have taken over the argument.

“This is just an issue that we disagree on, and it’s a big one,” Farr said. “[The tribe is] trying to do what they think is best for the tribal members, and I’m just trying to do what’s best for the people I represent, which includes the tribe.”

Farr said she supports fee-to-trust acquisitions for tribes that really need it, as in poor tribes that could benefit from the land and the social handout. But she said she doesn’t understand why a tribe like the Chumash, which has become successful and economically self-sufficient through its casino, needs the land placed in fee-to-trust.

For the tribe, Cohen said, it comes down to the Chumash’s right to have sovereignty over their own land and the painful history that gave them that right.

“There’s an emotional component,” Cohen said. “I’ve never met a tribe that doesn’t want self-determination.”

Whether they agree on the issues or not, Cohen said he can’t understand why the county won’t at least start a conversation.


Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanham at


PDF: 2012 agreement reached between the county of San Diego and the Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Indians.


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