Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs

Tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta testifies Thursday at a hearing of the U.S. House Indian and Native Alaskan Affairs Subcommittee.

A congressional subcommittee chairman who reportedly talked about sponsoring federal legislation recently to help the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians annex land to its reservation said this week that he has no such plans.

Congressman Don Young, an Alaska Republican who is chairman of the House Indian and Native Alaskan Affairs Subcommittee, reportedly made the comment about sponsoring legislation after listening to testimony from local Chumash Tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta on the difficulty his tribe has experienced trying to annex 6.9 acres directly across Highway 246 from the Chumash Casino Resort in Santa Ynez, as well as the much larger “Camp 4” property — 1,400 acres of ranch land two miles east of the casino.

Lack of action by Santa Barbara County officials to meet with the tribal leaders more than a year after the tribe submitted a cooperative agreement regarding the Camp 4 property could “make good grounds for a piece of legislation to solve the issue,” Young said after Armenta’s testimony, according to a tribal official.

Official minutes of the hearing were not yet available this week.

However, reached for comment Tuesday while traveling in Alaska with the congressman, spokesman Luke Miller said Young “has no plans to introduce legislation for the Chumash tribe regarding their property.”

Preservation of Los Olivos (POLO), a consistent critic of the tribe, is one of two Santa Ynez Valley community groups that has appealed a recent federal decision to take 6.9 acres of land into trust for the tribe. 

POLO board president Kathy Cleary could not be reached for comment.

The Chumash have indicated their desire to add the Camp 4 land to their reservation either through the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ fee-to-trust process or by direct federal legislation.

Either process removes land from local jurisdiction and makes it part of a sovereign Indian reservation, under tribal authority.

The oversight hearing, “Indian Lands: Exploring Resolutions to Disputes Concerning Indian Tribes, State and Local Governments, and Private Landowners Over Land Use and Development,” was scheduled to discuss tribal efforts in acquiring land and experiences of local authorities and private landowners who oppose the fee-to-trust process.

Chris Henson, executive staff assistant for Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr, said the supervisor, who represents the Santa Ynez Valley and has opposed fee-to-trust annexation, was not invited to the hearing. However, she listened to it on the Internet and intends to send a comment letter about the testimony provided at the hearing to the committee.

Last month, POLO and Preservation of Santa Ynez (POSY), staunch opponents of Chumash annexation to the reservation, appealed a recent federal decision to accept the 6.9 acre property into trust for the tribe. 

Tribal leaders have said they plan to develop a cultural center and museum, a retail building and a park on the vacant 6.9-acre property.

However, opponents have pointed out that nothing could stop the tribe from expanding gaming onto the property, or putting it to any other use, if the land becomes part of the reservation. In addition, they have noted that retail sales on tribal property are not subject to sales tax, giving any businesses there a competitive advantage.

Armenta said the tribe is seeking federal trust status for Camp 4 to provide housing for its members, the type of support for tribal economic development opportunities envisioned by the federal government as the reason for annexations.

 “Developing homes on this parcel, known as ‘Camp 4,’ would allow the tribe and its members to exercise true self-determination on the lands of our ancestors,” he said. 

The entire parcel, which is about the size of Solvang, was owned by the late Fess Parker until the tribe purchased it in 2010.

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There isn’t enough room on the tribe’s reservation, about 30 percent of which is hillside or creekbed, to accommodate the tribe’s 143 enrolled members and their 500 or so children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Armenta has said.

The housing would be built on what is now a 250-acre wheat field at the northeast corner of the larger property.

Last summer, the Chumash approached Santa Barbara County’s chief executive officer about ways to lessen the financial blow to the county if the 1,400 acres of land is taken off the property tax rolls through fee-to-trust.

Under the eight-page proposed “cooperative agreement,” the county would give up all rights to oversee development if the property becomes part of the reservation. After an initial set of payments, the agreement proposes, the county would also lose the ability to recoup the cost of future additional impacts “including, without limitation, law enforcement, fire, and traffic/roads, (which) will be mitigated solely by the county at no additional cost to Santa Ynez Band.”

County officials have not responded to the offer, Armenta told the subcommittee.

Farr has demanded that no such discussions occur at a staff level unless the Board of Supervisors decides to pursue the issue.

Earlier this year in a letter to Young, Farr detailed her opposition to placing the Camp 4 property into federal trust.

The four-page letter addressed a request by the Chumash to Young to help the tribe add the property into the reservation through direct congressional legislation. 

In July 2011,  the Santa Ynez Valley Alliance sent a letter to Congressman Elton Gallegly asking him to encourage Young to hold field hearings in California on the fee-to-trust process.

Armenta also said the status of the 6.9 acre property is in the appeals process yet again.

The annexation of the land was initially approved by the BIA in January 2005, five years after the process began, and the approval was appealed a month later by plaintiffs POLO, POSY, Santa Ynez Concerned Citizens, and Women’s Environmental Watch of the Santa Ynez Valley.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Interior Board of Indian Appeals (IBIA) twice — in February 2006 and June 2007 — found a “lack of standing” for the groups to appeal the fee-to-trust application approval.

However, in 2009 POLO and POSY won the right to have standing to challenge the fee-to-trust process and take BIA or IBIA decisions into federal court.

In June, the BIA notified the tribe of acceptance of the land into trust. A month later and two days before an appeal deadline, a split Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors decided not to appeal the federal decision.

 “Twelve years and two Bureau of Indian Affairs approvals later, the decision is still being held up in the appeals process,” Armenta told the congressional subcommittee last week, according to information provided by the tribe.  

After being asked by Young why the BIA couldn’t place the tribe’s 6.9 acres into trust that day, BIA Director Michael Black said the POLO/POSY appeal is tying up the process for an indefinite period.

“We can solve this congressionally, which would be my intent, especially if there’s a museum,” Young said. “I guarantee if it’s appealed again it will be solved congressionally.”

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