Officials of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians say that 1,400 acres they own in rural Santa Ynez was part of their home more than a century ago, and now they want to build housing on part of it.
During an invitation-only media tour Thursday, Tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta described the tribe’s intentions to create 143 single-family residential lots on what is now a 250-acre wheat field at the northeast corner of the larger property, which was owned by the late Fess Parker until the tribe purchased it in 2010.
The tour occurred one day before a town hall meeting organized by several community groups to discuss the potential impact of development on the property if the tribe is allowed to annex it to their sovereign reservation.
Sponsored by Santa Ynez Valley Concerned Citizens, Women’s Environmental Watch, Preservation of Los Olivos and Preservation of Santa Ynez, the meeting is scheduled for 6 tonight in the Solvang Veterans Memorial Building, 1745 Mission Drive.
Standing in a cattle pasture at the highest point of the vast property, overlooking a vineyard of nearly 250 acres, Armenta said there isn’t enough room on the tribe’s current 130-acre reservation, about 30 percent of which is hillside or creekbed, to accommodate the tribe’s 141 enrolled members and their approximately 500 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
On the current reservation, there are about 100 homes, although not all of them are occupied by tribal members, he said.
He also noted the tribe’s long historical ties to the Camp 4 property, although the tribe renounced rights to it and about 15,000 other acres in the Valley after a lawsuit by the Roman Catholic Church in the late 1800s against Chumash people who were ancestors of many living tribal members, including Armenta and Tribal Administrator Willie Wyatt.
“This at one time was theirs,” Armenta said.
A commemorative plaque on a rock dedicated by the tribe in April 2010 near the spot where Armenta spoke is inscribed, “Let this land link our past to our future.”
That was the same month that the tribe bought the 1,390 acres of agriculturally zoned property at the northeast corner of Highway 246-Armour Ranch Road and Highway 154 from Fess Parker Enterprises for about $40 million, leading immediately to speculation about the tribe’s plans for the property.
Several years before Parker died, he and the tribe discussed building a resort community there with a golf course and other amenities, but that plan was scrapped.
The Chumash have indicated their desire to add the land, known locally as Camp 4, to their reservation — either through the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ fee-to-trust process or by direct federal legislation.
If made part of the reservation, the sovereign tribal land would become exempt from local and state taxes and local planning and zoning laws.
Asked if there are any timelines to build the housing, Armenta jokingly said “yesterday.”
“The federal government controls the timeline, but I really do wish it was yesterday,” he added in a more serious tone.
He noted that the tribe has not yet made a formal fee-to-trust annexation application for the property.
In response to concerns about their development plans, tribal officials pointed out the Rancho Estates neighborhood adjacent to the eastern edge of their proposed homesites.
They cited language in the Santa Ynez Valley Community Plan, which describes the established rural subdivision as 137 agriculturally zoned parcels of 5, 10 or 20 acres each on 1,058 acres, with nine of the parcels vacant.
Tribal officials said they want to create 143 residential parcels — one for each enrolled member — on the approximately 250-acre wheat field bordered by Baseline Avenue on the north and Rancho Estates on the east.
All of the Camp 4 property is zoned now for agriculture, with lots no smaller than 100 acres.
The tribe also has the option of applying to Santa Barbara County to develop the ranchland into housing, but Armenta said the tribe wanted to emphasize that, as a sovereign government, it has the right of annexation like other governments.
“We want to exercise our governmental rights,” he said.
“At the end of the day,” added Sam Cohen, the tribe’s government and legal affairs specialist, “tribal people want to live on tribal land, governed by their own tribal government.”
The tribe is not trying to use the land for another casino, as opponents have charged, Armenta said.
“We haven’t had too many discussions about use of the rest of the land,” he added in response to a question, although the tribe wants to continue growing grapes in an approximately 250-acre vineyard fronting Baseline Avenue, which is now leased to the Parker family wine operations.
Tribe member Reggie Pagaling performed a song in Samala, the tribe’s native language, after Armenta spoke. He said the tribe has come a long way in the past 25 years from when its language was considered extinct to now reclaiming not only its language but some of the land that is historically significant to the tribe.
“It’s good to be on our land. It’s good to be here,” Pagaling said.