State legislation to expand property tax relief for all Native American tribes is stirring up controversy in the Santa Ynez Valley, especially because the Chumash sponsored the bill. Existing law exempts federally recognized tribes — as sovereign nations — from paying property taxes on all reservation land. But applications to increase reservation acreage often get stuck in lengthy appeals with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) bureaucracy. This bill would give tribes tax exemption on land still under consideration.
Santa Ynez Valley residents were taken aback to discover the Chumash-sponsored bill — AB 653 — was authored by Assemblymember Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, who represents Los Angeles. It could cost Santa Barbara County coffers hundreds of thousands every year at a time when county government is facing a $35 million deficit.
Chumash Chair Kenneth Kahn was not available for an interview. A spokesperson said in an email that the bill would provide “much needed limited property tax exemption after a notice of a decision by the BIA to take land into trust and during the administrative appeal for projects like tribal housing.” The BIA first approved the tribe’s trust application for Camp 4 — the 1,400-acre property where the Chumash have long said they want to build housing — back in 2014, but the decision is still under review in federal court. Valley groups and Santa Barbara County supervisors sued. The tribe has continued to pay annual property taxes on the property (which they appealed in 2015 and 2016).
“This bill is pretty unusual,” said C.J. Jackson, a member of Santa Ynez Valley Concerned Citizens, an appellant in the Camp 4 case. “It creates a standard that someone gets significant tax relief based on applying for something.” Ridley-Thomas said in a statement, however, that he expects the bill’s “collaborative process” would ultimately “honor unique local concerns while supporting tribes.” He noted the state of Montana implemented a similar policy, and according to his office, it was his idea to bring the policy to California, not the Chumash’s. State records show Ridley-Thomas has received $12,000 total in campaign contributions from the Chumash.
Last week, the bill passed the Assembly on a 75-1 vote. Santa Barbara Assemblymember Monique Limón abstained “out of respect for the ongoing local process in Santa Barbara County.” State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson has not yet made a decision, her office said. In the last year, Limon received roughly $8,000 in campaign donations from the tribe. Jackson received $6,000 (and several thousands in past years).
County Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who represents Santa Ynez Valley, was less bashful. She sent out a press release last week opposing the bill, saying, “AB 653 is not an effective way to create affordable housing as it purports to be; it would create an unfunded mandate for local government.” In addition, she said, “trust lands are often used to site casinos, hotels, and other commercial ventures even though housing might have been the basis for the fee-to-trust application.”