In the News
Chumash Land Plan Worries Civic Leaders
Los Angeles Times
March 21, 2004
Critics fear far-reaching consequences if tribes are allowed to develop public communities without regard for state and local laws.
By Julie Tamaki and Eric Bailey
It is a place of lush beauty, of rolling hills dotted by oaks and flanked by vineyards and mountains in the Santa Ynez Valley. There, the Chumash Indians and a private developer want to build as many as 500 luxury homes.
There is just one problem. The 745-acre site is zoned for only about seven homes. So the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians plans to petition the federal government to convert the property to reservation land.
The change would leave the state and county powerless to levy taxes and enforce an array of land-use regulations and environmental standards, raising development concerns far beyond Santa Barbara County.
One county attorney warned that, if successful, the proposal could have "huge" implications as tribes flush with casino profits and governed by special rules seek to diversify their holdings. Land-use experts predict that developers will be eager to partner with tribes to skirt local planning laws and build more homes in less time.
"As you know, time is money," said Raphael Bostic, director of the Casden Real Estate Economics Forecast at USC's Lusk Center. "Conceivably you could see development happen very quickly, which would be very attractive to developers."
"I think as land becomes more scarce, developers will look to where there is developable land, and if that's on tribal property, they'll go after it if they can," added Steven W. Weston, a Los Angeles land-use attorney.
Opponents of tribal gambling worry that such proposals could simply mask plans for more casinos.
"They are moving from simply a casino expansion issue, and now they're parlaying that into developments without oversight," said Cheryl Schmit, executive director of the gambling watchdog group Stand Up for California. "The big fear is, once the land is in a trust, they can do whatever they want."
Vincent Armenta, chairman of the Chumash, insists that his tribe and property owner Fess Parker — the developer and former actor who once played Davy Crockett on TV — intend to work "hand in hand" with Santa Barbara County officials. In addition to new homes, Parker and the tribe want to build a hotel resort, two championship golf courses and an equestrian center on the site.
"It's not a way to get around anything," Armenta said. "It has absolutely nothing to do with gaming. One of the most important and key parts to this project is tribal housing."
Although the proposal calls for some homes to be set aside for purchase by Chumash members, others are expected to be made available to the public. Nontribal home buyers would be required to secure long-term leases because they would be restricted from owning the land.
USC's Bostic cautioned that the legal relationship between tribes and homeowners was not well established. "There may be unknown limitations on how you dispose of such properties, how much equity you can extract, and there may be upkeep requirements," he said.
Efforts by California tribes to build casinos off reservations are not new, but the Chumash plan for a new community is. If placed in a federal trust, the Chumash would have control under the rule of tribal sovereignty in such matters, traditionally addressed by the state or local government, as traffic, air quality and schools.
"The issue of tribal sovereignty is a huge political and legal issue in California that still needs to be resolved," Weston said. "I can't think of any other special interest that can just develop without regard to California law."
"It's probably clear to everyone, without tribal land status this kind of project would have very little chance of being approved in a pristine area such as this," said Los Angeles attorney Ben Reznik, who specializes in land-use matters.
The site is zoned for agriculture, with only one unit or home allowed for every 100 acres, according to Val Alexeeff, director of planning and development for Santa Barbara County. Currently, he said, probably only about seven homes could be built on the approximately 745-acre site — far fewer than the hundreds of luxury homes suggested in the plan.
"The idea of coming in with hundreds of homes and a golf course and a luxury hotel was not exactly what planning policies intended," Alexeeff said. "Their biggest issue is going to be finding sufficient water to deal with that much development."
Jim Fletcher, a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent, said the public would have an opportunity to weigh in as the tribe's bid wound through an exhaustive federal process that could take three or four years.
Though his agency has yet to receive an application from the tribe to convert the land, Fletcher said the size of the project would probably prompt federal officials to require a rigorous environmental review.
"These sorts of conflicts often exist between a tribe and the surrounding county or adjacent cities," Fletcher said. "But it is a two-way street. There are occasions when projects are proposed next to reservations, and the tribes find themselves powerless to stop them."
Fletcher cited the example of the Pala tribe in northern San Diego County. A landfill is planned next to the tribe's reservation. Despite strong tribal opposition, Fletcher said, it appears headed toward approval.
The Chumash development proposal comes as tribes are experiencing a shift in some public and government attitudes toward their casino operations. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, has called on tribes to pay the state as much as 25% of their casino profits, estimated at about $5 billion annually.
"As California tribes gain greater wealth through their casino profits, we'll be seeing them trying to economically diversify, which is a positive thing," said Bruce Goldstein, deputy county counsel for Sonoma County, where a previous plan by the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians to build a high-end housing development never panned out.
Chumash members voted this month to pay Parker $12 million for the Santa Barbara County parcel. Under federal law, the Chumash would attempt to have the swath of property converted by the U.S. government to reservation land for the tribe. The tribe recently completed such a conversion on 17 acres straddling the two halves of its existing reservation, Fletcher said. That process took more than two years.
At issue, according to Goldstein, is whether new development, like the one proposed by Parker and the Chumash, follows local land-use laws. Lynne Plambeck, president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment, suggested that developers who reap profits and benefits from a community should follow its rules.
Doing so can block a project, however. Reznik, the land-use attorney, cited the contentious and lengthy battle over Ahmanson Ranch, where Washington Mutual Bank had hoped to build thousands of new homes, two golf courses and a hotel. The state eventually purchased the property from the Seattle-based bank, transforming the scenic stretch at the southeast edge of Ventura County into parkland.
Perhaps ironically, at least some Chumash opposed that proposed development. Chumash chairman Armenta described Ahmanson Ranch and the project sought by his tribe as "apples and oranges."
"Ahmanson Ranch was going to destroy quite a few cultural sites and not take into consideration the importance of those sites," Armenta said. The tribe, he said, would monitor for similar sites on the Parker property.