More than four years after obtaining a broad swath of undeveloped land in rural Santa Barbara County, a local Indian tribe has little to show for it.
Any development of the property has been stalled by an ongoing and rapidly escalating conflict between tribal authorities, county supervisors and local residents. But the dispute is spilling over into the realms of state and federal agencies, and dragging lawmakers nationwide into a heated and complex conflict over relations with a small — but politically potent — tribal group. In the coming months and years, it could become the largest piece of property ever acquired in California under the process known as “fee to trust.”
The tribe turned to a legal tool with origins in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934: the federal “fee-to-trust” (FTT) process.
In 2010, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians purchased 1,400 acres of largely unused agricultural land from Fess Parker, the former “Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter” television star, who died just weeks after the transaction. Located about 30 miles northwest of Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez Valley, the parcel is known as Camp 4, and appears now much as it did then — bucolic, but bare.
However and whenever the tribe, county officials, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Congressman representing California’s far north and other major players resolve the issue, the complexity of the Camp 4 controversy is sure to drag out the fight over the tribe’s pending application and related legislation.
“I see it as a tremendous land-use issue,” said Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network, who has worked extensively on the Camp 4 issue. “It’s hard and it’s difficult. It’s complicated.”
Establishing and protecting a long-term future
The Santa Ynez Band, a regional sub-group of the larger Chumash people who once occupied lands from Malibu to Paso Robles, has only 140 full-fledged members. Yet the tribe has done remarkably well for itself in the last decade, building a casino and resort on its reservation in 2003 that soon generated enough revenue to support improvements in community health care and education.
Since then, new wealth has funded new goals.
The tribe’s decision to pursue an FTT acquisition of Camp 4 came as a shock to officials of Santa Barbara County, which could stand to lose millions of dollars in future property taxes if the action is approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
Well before purchasing Camp 4, tribal leaders recognized their 138-acre reservation wouldn’t accommodate the improvement and expansion of community housing they envisioned for the tribe’s long-term future, according to tribal chairman Vincent Armenta.
Only 17 percent of the tribe’s current membership actually resides in the reservation, Armenta said in an email, due to the limited availability and quality of housing. Although some local residents in a frequently development-wary community disagree, tribal leaders assert that too much of their reservation is covered by wetlands and a large streambed to support new homes.
So when Parker’s Camp 4 property became available, the tribe sprang into action. But rather than pursue the necessary county permits and exemptions to commence construction on the site, the tribe turned to a legal tool with origins in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934: the federal “fee-to-trust” (FTT) process. Under the 1934 law, which has been used to help tribes regain lands, a tribe can effectively increase the size of its reservation by granting privately owned lands to the federal government in trust — winning tribal authority over the new property and removing parcels like Camp 4 from counties’ environmental oversight, land-use regulations and tax rolls.
Although the tribe has utilized both FTT acquisition and the private development process for smaller projects in the past, none comes close to the sheer acreage of Camp 4.
Armenta said in an email that the Camp 4 acquisition is part of an effort to protect the long-term economic and cultural future of the tribe by “reclaiming ancestral land” and “creating a meaningful opportunity for tribal members and their families to be a part of a tribal community revitalization effort” — a project that requires, for Armenta, the use of FTT.
Local officials fear the loss of property tax revenue
The tribe’s decision to pursue an FTT acquisition of Camp 4 came as a shock to officials of Santa Barbara County, which could stand to lose millions of dollars in future property taxes if the action is approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Although current county revenue from the land is only around $83,000 annually, accelerated development in the Santa Ynez Valley is likely to swell that figure in the future — as long as the land remains in the county’s jurisdiction.
The tribe has offered the county $10 million over ten years to make up for lost tax revenues, much like a city or other entity that annexes county property.
“From the county’s perspective, if the land goes into trust for the tribe, it takes it totally out of any kind of local land use process, and totally off the county tax rolls,” said county supervisor Doreen Farr, whose district includes Camp 4. “What’s misleading about it now is that the 1,400 acres is…open agricultural land, so the tax income is relatively low. But the intention is for it not to stay as it is, for agricultural purposes.”
Farr warned that losing property tax income at Camp 4 would harm local schools and put an increased burden on the county as it seeks to provide essential services like law enforcement and fire-fighting in the area.
Still, a precise figure measuring the fiscal impact of a Camp 4 FTT annexation remains elusive. Beyond the initial $83,000 annual loss, any estimates are purely hypothetical.
An October 2013 study conducted by the county estimated that private development in Camp 4 would generate $34 million in property taxes over 50 years at minimum, assuming the land is rezoned for non-agricultural projects — all of which would be lost if the tribe placed the land in trust. The same study suggested mostly residential development of homes on five-acre parcels at Camp 4, a layout similar to the project proposed by the tribe, could generate up to $311 million for the county in the same time span if kept in the county’s coffers.
The tribe has offered the county $10 million over ten years to make up for lost tax revenues, much like a city or other entity that annexes county property. But agreeing to a mitigation agreement acknowledges that the tribe is, in fact, annexing Camp 4 through FTT — a point the county is unwilling to concede.
“Respect for the land is a sacred agreement linking our ancestors and generations to come. We have made a tribal-wide commitment to environmentally sustainable practices.” — Vincent Armenta
“By walking away from the process, (the county) completely abdicated any possibility that (it) could have to work with the tribe toward a mutually agreeable land use regulation,” Armenta noted in an email.
Farr and other opponents of the FTT acquisition insist they’re not walking away from the process, though. They’d be willing to consider the tribe’s development plans for Camp 4 if it approached the county as a private developer — a step the tribe is unwilling to take, she said.
Environmentalists fear loss of protections for the property
While the fiscal impacts of the tribe’s Camp 4 acquisition remain unclear, the regulatory fallout of a 1,400-acre FTT annexation is also making the county, local residents and environmental activists nervous.
If the parcel is taken through FTT rather than privately developed in cooperation with the county, the land would be freed from state and local land-use law in favor of federal regulations. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and local zoning would be pushed aside in favor of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other federal statutes, chiefly interpreted and applied during the FTT application process through an environmental review conducted by the BIA.
But federal environmental laws are rarely as exacting as CEQA, says Santa Ynez Valley resident and long-time land-use attorney Andi Culbertson.
“Having spent over 40 years administering both NEPA and CEQA I believe that the federal rules are applied in a fashion that is less rigorous than California (environmental laws),” Culbertson said in an email. “When a property is totally free of the obligation to consider state regulations, I strongly doubt that the level of effort invested by the BIA will be very rigorous.”
Nevertheless, Armenta was largely dismissive of concerns about the environmental impacts of development at Camp 4.
“Our tribe sees the land as more than a resource,” Armenta wrote. “Respect for the land is a sacred agreement linking our ancestors and generations to come. We have made a tribal-wide commitment to environmentally sustainable practices.” The tribe’s stated intention is to build 143 homes on five-acre parcels, although other options have been considered.
Questions about land-use extend beyond environmental regulation, however. Some local residents have accused the tribe of plotting to build a second casino on Camp 4 — a charge the tribe has vehemently denied. The tribe would need special permission from the Secretary of the Interior and the Governor to undertake such a project, and the tribe already began a massive expansion of its existing casino in April.
“Our Chumash Casino Resort is located just two miles from our Camp 4 land,” Armenta said in an email. “It simply would not make economic sense to build another casino.”
Even though Camp 4 may be an exceptionally large property, conflicts between counties and tribes are nothing unique in California.
But it remains unclear what else the tribe might build on Camp 4, even years in the future. Although the tribe’s FTT application to the BIA assures that the land’s primary purpose will be housing, the language is open-ended — and there’s no telling what a tribal government 30 years down the road might decide to build on the property, once it is completely removed from local government’s supervision.
Noting that FTT acquisitions are placed into federal and tribal hands into “perpetuity,” Farr was concerned that no BIA policy allows a county to reassert its authority in annexed properties — no matter changes in tribal leadership, policy or population over time.
Culbertson was similarly bothered by the permanence of FTT acquisitions.
“I think the state looks the way it does because of our land-use laws — attractive for people to come and live here,” Culbertson said. “The public has an expectation of knowing what’s going to happen and having a say in it. I shouldn’t have to trust anybody.”
Even though Camp 4 may be an exceptionally large property, conflicts between counties and tribes are nothing unique in California.
A 2012 study in the Pepperdine Law Review found that California tribes have acquired more than 10,500 acres of new reservation lands through FTT since 2001, labeling the Pacific Region BIA’s 100-percent approval rate of tribal FTT applications from 2001 to 2011 “extreme rubber-stamping.”
Although the BIA considers fiscal impacts and jurisdictional conflicts for counties when processing FTT applications, the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) has maintained that local governments’ voices often go unheard in the approval process.
“The fee-to-trust process at the federal level asks for very limited comment from local jurisdictions,” said Kiana Buss, a CSAC lobbyist who works on land-use issues. “Generally, counties view the fee-to-trust process as inadequate.”
Roles of Gov. Brown and Kamala Harris raise questions
California tribes’ frequent use of FTT has also caught the eye of Gov. Jerry Brown over the years.
Between 2011 and 2013, California Attorney General Kamala Harris acted on behalf of the Brown administration by sending no less than six letters to the BIA, objecting to and requesting denial of pending FTT applications (one was later withdrawn).
In the aftermath of that exchange, both the Brown administration and attorney general Harris have declined to involve themselves in the Camp 4 issue.
Harris’ track record of opposition to FTT acquisitions drew fire from a partnership between BIA-member tribes and the Pacific Region BIA office known as the “California Fee-to-Trust Consortium” in June 2013. The consortium sent a letter to Harris requesting an immediate moratorium on FTT objections and reconsideration of the state’s stance on FTT in general.
The attorney general’s reply one month later insisted the objection letters were sent at the behest of Gov. Brown.
“The attorney general’s office is the state’s counsel on these matters,” Brown spokesman Jim Evans explained. “The relationship is one of client and attorney. As always, we work collaboratively with the AG’s office and consult with their lawyers on these important issues.”
In the aftermath of that exchange, both the Brown administration and attorney general Harris have declined to involve themselves in the Camp 4 issue. Harris has sent no letter of objection to the BIA, despite a request for state input sent to Gov. Brown by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.
A statement from Evans on the Camp 4 affair read only “The administration has held discussions with county officials, local residents and tribal officials on this issue. We’ll continue to monitor it going forward.” The attorney general’s office declined requests to comment.
The governor’s reclusiveness on Camp 4 and FTT acquisitions in general has irked Farr, whose meetings with Brown administration officials have thus far failed to bear significant fruit.
Peter Siggins’ letter, often cited by opponents of the Camp 4 acquisition, has set the parameters for debate in the Santa Ynez Band’s current FTT effort in more ways than one.
“I have not been successful so far in getting the Governor’s office to focus in not only on our specific issue, but what I see as the greater issue for the State of California,” Farr said. “It’s kind of interesting. These issues are not unique to Santa Barbara County. These issues are being felt in a lot of other counties across our state, and across the country.”
A historical perspective
Despite unease with his tribe’s plans in the Santa Ynez Valley community, Chairman Armenta was unequivocal when asked if he thought acquiring Camp 4 through FTT was fair to the county.
“Was it fair that millions of acres of ancestral land were taken through the improper actions of others?” Armenta said in an email. “Placing land into trust is a way for tribes to reclaim their lands. Our efforts today…are simply intended to correct history and provide to our tribal members what is right and just.”
But Armenta’s interpretation of federal Indian law — that FTT is meant to enable tribes to reassert authority in their historical territories — has drawn scrutiny from a range of players in state tribal policy.
Harris’ multiple FTT objection letters and a 2005 objection letter from then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Legal Affairs Secretary Peter Siggins all emphasized the role of necessity in tribal acquisition of new lands through FTT.
Although Doug LaMalfa holds a position on the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, his district is hundreds of miles away in far northeastern California.
Siggins’ letter, which objected to a smaller 5.68-acre FTT application by the Santa Ynez Band, dismissed tribal arguments that FTT acquisitions could provide some form of historical justice for the tribe by pointing to the enormous range of the Chumash people before contact with Europeans: 7,000 acres of land from Malibu to Paso Robles. If the FTT process were really meant to aid the “re-acquisition of tribal lands,” as the Santa Ynez Band argued in its application, then there was no telling how far FTT could be taken, Siggins argued.
Rather, Siggins held that a legal clause mandating that FTT acquisitions be “necessary to facilitate tribal self-determination, economic development, or Indian housing,” ruled out the tribe’s 2005 application as superfluous and inadmissible.
Siggins’ letter, often cited by opponents of the Camp 4 acquisition, has set the parameters for debate in the Santa Ynez Band’s current FTT effort in more ways than one.
As if responding to Siggins’ challenge, the tribe has made a case for the necessity of its annexation through FTT. First, the land will be used for housing that cannot be constructed on the tribe’s existing reservation — but that goal could be accomplished through private development as well. Secondly, and more importantly, Armenta argued in an email that the county’s refusal to meet with the tribe on a government-to-government basis rather than as a private developer indicates the county has no intention of allowing the tribe to develop any housing on Camp 4 whatsoever.
But the tribe didn’t attempt to develop Camp 4 as a private landowner before looking to the BIA and FTT, according to Culbertson.
“Federal law only allows (the Santa Ynez Band) to take land into trust, not for sovereignty purposes, but to accomplish the band’s objective,” Culbertson said. “Without a showing of denial from the county, there’s no showing they can’t accomplish their objective.”
The congressman from the north
Nevertheless, county officials and residents’ objections to the Camp 4 FTT may prove insignificant if U.S. Representative Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, has his way.
LaMalfa introduced HR 3313 — which would bypass the BIA’s lengthy and bureaucratic approval process for FTT applications and speedily ratify the Camp 4 acquisition — in October. Although LaMalfa holds a position on the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, his district is hundreds of miles away in far northeastern California.
LaMalfa spokesman Kevin Eastman said LaMalfa sees the story of the Camp 4 FTT acquisition much as the tribe does — rebuffed on virtually every front by the county, the Santa Ynez Band turned to the BIA for a chance to exercise its basic “property rights.”
“From everything we’ve seen, the county has refused to work in good faith with the tribe,” he added. “Unfortunately, (the county has) fallen victim to no-growth environmental activists who quite frankly should purchase the property if they want to exert control over it.”
But county officials like Farr, who view the tribe’s actions quite differently, wish LaMalfa would stick to his own business.
“It’s pretty outrageous that he would propose a bill like this.” Farr said. “This is a local matter, not a matter for Congress.”
But the tribe is pushing hard on all fronts for its Camp 4 acquisition and other interests, harnessing its business success to build political capital.
The tribe has spent nearly $4 million on national lobbying efforts and a variety of political campaigns since 2005, according to the California Secretary of State’s office and the Center for Responsive Politics, a political watchdog group.
Congresswoman Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, who represents the Santa Ynez Valley, continues to call the Camp 4 controversy a local issue. But the tribe pressed Capps to change her position in a recent letter that again identified the county’s refusal to meet on a government-to-government basis as equivalent to rejection of development in Camp 4 on any terms whatsoever.
In May, Reps. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, and Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota, joined LaMalfa and the nine other co-sponsors of HR 3313 in requesting Natural Resources Committee chairman Doc Hastings grant the bill a hearing. For now, HR 3313 remains in committee.
For many opponents of the Camp 4 FTT acquisition, the tribe’s ability to spend major sums on politics and local charities — and its apparent clout in Congress — points to a need to reexamine federal Indian law.
“I think the fee-to-trust process was created at a time when Native Americans were struggling so badly that they needed that leg up,” Farr said. “Now, they’re in a situation where they can be like any other kind of developer and pay taxes and play by the same rules as anybody.”
But Armenta signaled that the fight for Camp 4 is far from over.
“The tribe is responsive to its voters the same way the county is responsive to county voters,” he said in an email. “Tribal members have voted for housing on Camp 4. The tribe is bound by this decision.”
Ed’s Note: Connor Grubaugh, a student at UC Berkeley, is a Capitol Weekly intern from the University of California’s Sacramento Center.