As promised, the County of Santa Barbara has appealed the federal government’s December approval of the Chumash tribe’s request to annex its 1,400-acre property known as Camp 4. The appeal — which joins another one filed by the county over a “faulty” analysis that foresaw no ramifications from the property’s potential development — questions the reasons listed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in both granting the tribe’s request and minimizing the county’s concerns. A Santa Ynez Valley resident has filed his own appeal, and three Valley groups have vowed to do the same.
It wasn’t a question of if the appeal, filed Wednesday with the Interior Board of Indian Appeals (IBIA), would come but rather when. The BIA released the aforementioned analysis in October. In November, the Board of Supervisors responded to that favorable assessment by voting 3-2 (with Supervisors Salud Carbajal and Steve Lavagnino dissenting) to appeal the approval when it came. Now that the appeal has been filed, County Counsel Michael Ghizzoni said he wouldn’t expect the IBIA to act for at least a few weeks.
“We’ll follow it very closely,” said 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr, who represents the Santa Ynez Valley. “We’ll continue to keep the community informed.” The potential financial and environmental effects of developing the 1,400-acre parcel could ripple out from the Valley to the entire county, Farr said. “At the heart of it is me doing my job and two other supervisors doing their job in protecting the interests of the people in the county,” she said, praising Ghizzoni and his team for being “as absolutely thorough as they were” in writing the appeal.
“I’m not surprised that they filed it. I’m surprised at the comments and the reasons for their filing,” said tribal chair Vincent Armenta, defending the BIA’s environmental review as “extremely thorough.” Armenta has repeatedly pointed to the lengthy appeals process — now resolved in the tribe’s favor — that surrounded a 6.9-acre plot across the street from the existing reservation. “I’m confident the tribe will prevail regardless” of the appeal, he said.
The appeal reiterated worries previously raised by county officials. In making her decision, BIA Pacific Region director Amy Dutschke erred several times over, the appeal alleged. The county counsel’s office said Dutschke didn’t adequately consider the tribe’s need for the land, how it will be used, the effects of removing the property from the county’s tax rolls, and the conflicts that could arise from planning regulations, among other factors.
In addition to the 143 homes proposed for the property — to help house the 136 tribal members and 1,300 descendants currently not living on tribal land — the Chumash have proposed building a 12,000-square-foot facility that could bring in an extra 800 visitors per week. (Armenta has repeatedly said that gaming is off the table for the 1,400 acres.) An increase in area residents and visitors would be coupled with an annual property tax loss of $83,000, the appeal continued, depriving the county of revenue when it would need more money to counter the effects of more people in the region. Further, the appeal stated, the BIA failed to account for the tribe’s pending resort expansion — estimated to draw an extra 1,200 patrons daily — in conjunction with Camp 4 development.
The land itself, which the tribe purchased from Fess Parker in 2010 for $40 million, is also at issue. That it isn’t contiguous to the existing reservation raises red flags among the county’s legal team; it sits 1.6 miles away. Under such scenarios, the appeal states, “the BIA must give greater scrutiny to a tribe’s justification of anticipated benefits from the acquisition and greater weight to the concerns raised by local government with respect to regulatory jurisdiction and tax losses.”
In a related vein, the lawyers noted that the 1,400 acres sit under a state Williamson Act contract through 2022, affording the tribe lower property taxes in exchange for keeping the land agricultural. Thus, the tribe wouldn’t be able to develop until 2023, a future date with different projections than the present-day estimates used by the BIA in its review. Ghizzoni has said before that the tribe stated it will “respect” the contract.
Overall, Ghizzoni and company deemed the approval “erroneous and an improper use of discretion” and asked that the land not be placed into federal trust until the appeals process resolves and a more detailed environmental analysis is conducted.
Brian Kramer, a lawyer based in Manhattan Beach who lives near the Camp 4 property, also appealed the decision, calling for a more thorough environmental review of the tribe’s proposal. Kramer didn’t mince words in his argument, saying the approval was “arbitrary and capricious” and “lacks credibility, clarity, transparency, logic, and reason.” Kramer took issue with the environmental analysis’s reliance on present-day conditions, given the Williamson Act contract.
Kramer will be joined in appealing by the Santa Ynez Valley Alliance, which is being represented by the Environmental Defense Center (EDC). Chief EDC lawyer Linda Krop said their appeal will call on the BIA to “fully identify and disclose the impacts of the development proposal,” especially those related to agriculture, biological resources, views, and land-use compatibility. Another group, Santa Ynez Valley Concerned Citizens, wrote on its website an intent to file. A third group, Preservation of Los Olivos (POLO), is also challenging the decision. In addition to calling for a stronger environmental review, POLO contends the BIA didn’t consider potential gaming on the property.
The ultimate decision-maker will likely be Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs for the Department of the Interior. A recent policy change put Washburn in charge of appeals over properties larger than 200 acres.