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The following article was posted on February 15th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 17, Issue 50 [ Submit a Story ]
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A slow fight for tribal land: Santa Barbara County, Chumash prepare for government meetings and legal battles over Camp 4


The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted on Feb. 7 to take its land negotiations with the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians behind closed doors—at least partially.

Previously, county-tribe negotiation meetings took place exclusively in a public forum, where representatives from both governments proposed and discussed terms for Camp 4—a 1,400-acre parcel of Chumash-owned land the tribe has worked to annex into their federal reservation. But the governments failed to reach an agreement before the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) gave the green light to move Camp 4 into federal trust as part of the Chumash reservation, to which the county responded with federal litigation.

Now, in an effort to speed up the negotiation process before the legal battle kicks off, a portion of the future meetings between the county and tribe will take place in private, staff-to-staff settings.

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians recently got the green light from the feds to annex a 1,400-acre parcel of land into their Indian reservation to use for tribal housing. The county and community are pushing back against the decision.

Joan Hartmann, 3rd District supervisor, said the county and tribe will still reserve formal decision-making for public forum meetings. They will also continue posting all documents from their staff-to-staff meetings on the county website.

“I think the formal ad hoc process has been extremely important, and I think it’s generated some comfort of the various parties with each other,” Hartmann told the Sun. “This will just allow staff to do more preparation for these meetings with direct discussion back and forth.”

The negotiations

The Camp 4 negotiations began between a county ad hoc subcommittee and tribal representatives in September 2015, after Congress directed the county to work with the tribe toward a terms agreement concerning Camp 4, which the Chumash aim to allocate for tribal member housing and a cultural center.

In monthly public meetings, the county and tribe proposed and discussed terms for property tax reimbursement and environmental impact mitigation for Camp 4, should it move out of county jurisdiction and into the tribe’s reservation. The meetings continued off and on until October 2016, at which point the county canceled the next scheduled forum and suspended future meetings until a new ad hoc subcommittee was in place.

In the board’s first meeting of 2017, new county supervisors Joan Hartmann and Das Williams replaced Peter Adam and former supervisor Doreen Farr on the Chumash subcommittee. Meanwhile, the Chumash kept moving forward with plans to add Camp 4 into their reservation—and on Jan. 20, the BIA gave its stamp of approval.

The county shot back with federal litigation against the bureau, citing inadequate environmental review. Moving forward, the Board of Supervisors voted on Feb. 7 to contract the ad hoc subcommittee for another six months to meet with the Chumash and expedite the negotiations by holding private staff-to-staff meetings in addition to the public forums. 

Racing a lawsuit

Now—with a fresh ad hoc subcommittee, a tribe celebrating the feds’ green light to expand its reservation, and a series of government meetings on the horizon—a pending federal lawsuit lights a fire under an already-contentious situation, pressuring the county and tribe to come to terms quickly.

“My hope would be to move with speed, because the county and the tribe will be facing off in litigation beginning in May,” 1st District Supervisor Williams told the Sun. “The opportunity to create a win-win is now, if such a thing exists.”

Williams said he wanted to join the subcommittee because he had ideas for pursuing a “win-win” situation for both the tribe and other Santa Ynez Valley residents, who have traditionally opposed the Chumash’s land developments.

“What is most in the interest of the residents of the Santa Ynez Valley is to have as much open space remain undeveloped as possible,” Williams said. “I hope the tribe would be willing to make concessions on that.”

Williams was one of the two supervisors who voted against the federal litigation, the other being 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino. Williams said he’d wanted the opportunity to reach negotiated terms with the tribe through staff-to-staff meetings before taking legal action.

“Though the ad hoc committee was good for the community understanding each other more, obviously it did not yet reach a kind of agreement,” Williams said. “My hope will be that we have negotiation before litigation, but I kind of understand why the other supervisors and county counsel have moved on litigation.”

Congressman Salud Carbajal (D), who represents the Central Coast’s 24th District and previously served on the county Board of Supervisors for 12 years, said the governments should have been able to work out an agreement before the BIA took action on Camp 4.

“I had hoped a government-to-government agreement between the [Chumash] and Santa Barbara County could be reached prior to administrative action,” Carbajal said in an emailed statement to the Sun. “The community and county have expressed valid concerns regarding the impacts of this decision that need to be addressed.”

Williams said his primary goals for negotiations before the legal battle takes off in May are to make sure at least some of Camp 4 remains undeveloped, and mitigate property tax losses for the county.

Community pressure

The Santa Ynez Valley Coalition, a collection of groups opposing the Chumash’s proposed reservation expansion, supports the county’s decision to bring some of its discussion with the tribe behind closed doors, according to coalition spokesperson Mike Brady.

“We want a resolution to the issue,” Brady told the Sun. “We support the direction the county is going in. We will do anything to cooperate. We want to see that the tribe gets 143 houses and a cultural center, but this federal legislation or BIA action is a bad deal for the community as a whole, and we will suffer forever because of it.”

Brady said the coalition’s ideal solution would be to rezone the Camp 4 property, which is currently zoned for agricultural use, so the tribe could establish housing and its cultural center there—but still be subject to local taxes and environmental impact laws.

Taking the land into federal trust as part of the Chumash Indian reservation would, as Brady put it, “put a big, black hole in the Santa Ynez Valley and the agricultural nature that is so critical to our economy and the valley.”

“It’s basically a bad deal for us, and it’s a great deal for them,” Brady said. “It takes them off the property tax rolls and relieves them from state income tax. So all of the burdens that will happen with their development if it’s in federal hands, the community—that is, the citizens that pay taxes—will end up paying for.”

The tribe declined the Sun’s requests for comment for this story, but tribal Chairman Kenneth Kahn said in a previous interview that it’s important for the Chumash to have member housing on tribal land for cultural reasons.

“Tribal housing on tribal land is an important component of strengthening the cultural connections of the tribe,” Kahn said, “and being able to provide the opportunity to celebrate our customs, language, and tradition.”

Kahn wrote in a letter to Brady that tribal member housing is “about so much more than just a roof over one’s head,” and added that the federal government would still closely regulate construction on Camp 4 should the land become part of the tribe’s reservation. Kahn also claimed in court documents that construction would not begin on Camp 4 for at least another nine months.

Hartmann and Williams said they hope to schedule the next county-tribe negotiation meeting for March. Hopefully, the newly restructured discussions will reach negotiated terms soon, Hartman said—before a legal battle ensues or construction breaks ground.

“We’re eager to see what we can do within a short period of time,” Hartmann said. “We don’t want it to drag out forever. We want to show progress.”

Staff Writer Brenna Swanston can be reached at

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