In a huge — but not especially out-of-the-blue — win for the Chumash and a huge worry for some Santa Ynez Valley residents, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs released a report on Wednesday declaring that the tribe’s Camp 4 annexation plans would have “no significant impact” on the surrounding area. The 557-page report, which responded to the nearly 200 comments submitted by the county and residents questioning the depth of the Bureau’s environmental study of the project, paves the way for the Bureau’s final decision on whether to allow the tribe to take that 1,400-acre property into trust.
An approval — which many speculated is all but certain, and could come within a month — would remove the land from the county’s tax rolls and planning regulations, an anxiety-making possibility for county officials and residents alike, particularly in the wake of the tribe’s fast-moving plans to expand its resort on its existing reservation to include a 12-story hotel tower. Tribal leadership has long maintained that they need the land for housing, and a piece of federal legislation — now dead, but revivable — they had introduced last year to take the acreage into trust included a no-gaming clause.
Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr, who represents the valley, called the Bureau’s report “very disappointing but unfortunately probably not unexpected.” When she heard the news, she said, she reached out to County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni and told him to do “everything possible to protect the county’s interests on this issue.” A closed-session discussion amongst Ghizzoni, Farr, and the fellow supervisors is scheduled for the board’s November 4 meeting, Farr added. In a letter sent from County CEO Mona Miyasato to the Bureau over the summer, officials expressed concerns about the Bureau’s environmental study of taking the land into trust, asking for a more thorough review and contending that the project needn’t be rushed.
Linda Krop, the chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), representing activist group Santa Ynez Valley Alliance, expressed similar disappointment with the Bureau’s finding that the project wouldn’t affect the area. Krop had previously argued to the Bureau that development on that land would mean trouble for wildlife and agriculture and needed more in-depth study. Further, Krop reiterated, the tribe should look into meeting its housing needs on the land without going the trust route, instead going through normal county planning protocols.
Tribal chairman Vincent Armenta celebrated the news but said he’s “not going to be surprised” when lawsuits would all but certainly be filed in the wake of an approval he’s “confident” will come. (He pointed to the nine years of legal wrangling, resolved earlier this year, that it took for the tribe to be granted the 6.9-acre property across the street from the existing casino; that parcel will host a museum.) The Bureau made its findings, Armenta said, because the comments submitted challenging the environmental study “had no merit.” Repeating an oft-invoked argument, Armenta said the county should treat the tribe like its governmental equal rather than an adversary and that, with regard to the Bureau’s report, the county “should be happy that it went through such a rigorous process.”
Of the aforementioned federal legislation, H.R. 3313, Armenta said it could come back into play when the approval gets appealed. “That’s when members of Congress will take a good look,” he said. Kevin Eastman, a representative for Republican Congressmember Doug LaMalfa — a Northern California representative, and recipient of a $1,000 campaign contribution from the tribe, who sponsored the bill with four other electeds — didn’t explicitly state that the bill would be re-introduced in the future but left open that possibility. “Rep. LaMalfa and our bipartisan cosponsors will continue to support the Chumash until their efforts to provide housing for their members are resolved,” Eastman said. Rep. Lois Capps, who decried H.R. 3313 when it was introduced, expressed similar sentiments in the wake of the Bureau’s report this week. “I will continue monitoring the BIA process closely but maintain this issue is best resolved at the local level,” she said in a statement.
As outlined in the Bureau’s report, the tribe’s annexation plans would provide 143 housing units for tribal members and their descendants, only 17 percent of whom reside on the existing reservation. Also proposed are an on-site wastewater treatment facility and groundwater development for potable water. Portions of the property, which the tribe bought for $40 million from late actor-turned-winemaker Fess Parker in 2010, will be set aside for open space, oak woodland conservation, and vineyards. The tribe got the ball rolling on the annexation process last year. In October 2013, the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 (with Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino against) to officially oppose the tribe’s request.