Santa Barbara County officials on Tuesday rejected a request from the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians for a "government to government" dialogue on a proposal to add a large swath of agricultural land to the tribe's reservation.
Instead, the Board of Supervisors directed county staff to meet with tribal representatives as the plans move forward, and to report back as necessary.
The board hearing room in Santa Barbara was packed, as were two overflow conference rooms, for the emotional discussion that centered on Camp 4, a 1,400-acre parcel near the Chumash reservation where the tribe has said it wants to build homes for tribal members.
The discussion was prompted by a letter from Tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta, who asked to begin a “government-to-government" dialogue with the county.
The board's decision came after a lengthy public hearing that included comments from nearly 40 people, most of them Santa Ynez Valley residents who objected to moving forward with a dialogue on the project.
The tribe, which has legal sovereignty on its 138-acre reservation, recently filed an application with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to annex the property through a process known as fee-to-trust.
If approved, the land would become part of the Chumash reservation, and be removed from the county's tax rolls and from the oversight of the county planning processes.
Carbajal started the hearing by acknowledging "challenging relations" in the past.
When his turn came to speak, Armenta implored the supervisors to engage in dialogue on the issue.
But emotions were raw as speaker after speaker took the podium, most of them residents in the valley, raising a broad spectrum of issues.
Several noted that the valley has a long-range plan developed by the county, which directs development and lays out a planning process that the tribe is not subject to on its reservation lands.
Some pointed out that the tribe does not have to pay county property taxes, and others opined that the tribe's expansion could eventually extend further and further across the county.
Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network, said that the Chumash application is unprecedented in its size.
"The number of off-reservation acres that the tribe wants to put into trust is larger than all the off-reservation acres that went fee-to-trust in all of California from 2001 to 2011," she said.
Jordan said that the tribe applied in March with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to create a Tribal Consolidation Area that reached far beyond Camp 4 to total approximately 10,000 acres, but did not inform the county or the public.
Brooks Firestone, a longtime Santa Ynez Valley resident and former Third District supervisor, also made an appearance during public comment.
Since buying the Camp 4 land from Fess Parker in 2010, the tribe said there wouldn't be gaming on the property, Firestone said, but he and Parker had discovered plans stating otherwise.
"This proposal defies any community planning," he said, urging the supervisors not to enter discussions.
Some of the most impassioned comments came from valley resident Greg Schipper, who moved to the area with his family six weeks ago.
Schipper acknowledged the wrongs that historically had been done to the Chumash, but asserted that "the past is the past."
With each tribe member bringing in a hefty amount from casino proceeds, "I work a lot harder than they do for their money," he said.
Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam began the comments from the dais, saying he felt strongly that the board needed to communicate with all members in the valley.
Adam also said that if valley residents had a chance to develop without county rules and restrictions, like the Chumash, they'd do it, too.
"If I could figure out a way to avoid the planning process, I would. I can't blame the tribe for trying," he said.
The boundaries of the Tribal Consolidation Area were also of concern to Adam.
"The TCA is problematic to me," he said. "I did not know until this morning that the TCA had been approved by BIA."
Several properties, including that of the Gainey Ranch, are within the boundaries of the TCA, and Adam said that if he were one of the affected properties, he'd be upset.
"I just wonder where will it end," he said.
Lavagnino, who represents the Fifth District, said that the county refusing to have discussions sends a "green light to congress" to step in.
"I would be hoping for a no vote if I was a tribal member," he said.
Though he didn't approve of the fee-to-trust process, "I don't have a whole lot of say in it," Lavagnino said, adding that if people have a problem with that process, they need to take it up with their federal representatives.
As for the county, "I think it's very poor government to ignore a situation," he said.
Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said her inbox was overflowing with emails from concerned people, adding that the project was probably the largest land-use decision ever to come before the county.
Looking through the BIA application for Camp 4, Wolf said, she found that the description of what was to take place on the property was "too fuzzy."
"I would be concerned about moving forward on a plan that is not consistent," she said, adding that she wanted to know exactly what was being proposed before agreeing to a dialogue.
Carbajal said he agreed with Lavagnino's points with one exception.
"I tend to support the BIA process… It exists as a remedy for many, many wrongs that have occurred in our country," he said.
Last to speak was Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr, who has been vocal about the proposed annexation of the property, which is within her district.
Farr said that she has always recognized the Chumash tribe for its sovereign status, and that she has been open to talks.
"I have talked a lot with the tribe, I guess they haven't liked what I've had to say," she said.
The history of the tribe wanting to take Camp 4 into trust is a long one, and the rest of the valley community is united in opposing that, she said.
"It is not a few people, it is a lot of people," she said.
The loss of tax revenue is not insignificant, she said, and is a loss in perpetuity, giving the county all the impacts, but no money to handle them.
UCSB is an example of an organization that isn't subject to county authority, but the board has had regular reports from UCSB on its development.
"That's a model that is out there," she said, formally proposing that the county staff work with the tribe on Camp 4 plans, and that the board would kept informed on a regular basis.
Wolf supported the motion, as did Adam, saying that he would support talks between a property owner and a government body.
Carbajal said he would not vote for the motion because he wanted to support a broader discussion.