A group of activists from the Santa Ynez Valley has filed suit against the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians’ tribal chairman, alleging the proper paperwork was never filed to receive tax breaks on property the tribe is trying to place into federal trust.
Save the Valley LLC on Monday filed a civil lawsuit that names Chairman Vincent Armenta and Sam Cohen, the tribe’s government affairs and legal officer, for violating the state’s Williamson Act by never signing or recording a contract.
The Williamson Act offers property tax relief to owners of farmland who maintain the agricultural use for a rolling 10-year period, guaranteeing the land will not be developed or converted to another use.
That process is supposed to occur every time the land changes hands.
The group’s suit alleges the Chumash did not immediately sign an assumption of the Williamson Act, and should not have enjoyed tax breaks the past three years.
The land at the center of the suit is a 1,400-plus-acre parcel known as Camp 4, which the Chumash purchased from the Fess Parker family in 2010 with the intent of building tribal family homes on the reservation-adjacent property.
Save the Valley was formed specifically to preserve the valley's rural character, and because of the tribe’s pursuit of the fee-to-trust process for Camp 4, which effectively would remove the land from the county’s tax rolls and from the oversight of county planning processes.
The group is comprised of property owners who share that concern, but no name has been associated with Save the Valley except for its Santa Barbara attorney, Matthew Clarke.
The lawsuit asks the Chumash to immediately sign an assumption agreement with the county — publicly acknowledging it is bound by the act’s development restrictions — and to pay for the group’s attorney fees.
“Remarkably, during the entire period of ownership, the county of Santa Barbara has allowed the tribe to save well over $1 million by paying greatly reduced property taxes permitted under the Williamson Act,” the suit states, although an exact amount was not listed.
Reached for comment Thursday, Cohen said he and the chairman have not yet been served, although they’ve seen a copy of the suit from another media outlet.
He said the Chumash last November sent a notice of nonrenewal of its Williams Act contract to county counsel, and have also been working alongside counsel to file the assumption notice in question.
County counsel confirmed the office sent the tribe a draft of an assumption agreement.
In a response letter dated June 30, Armenta wrote that the tribe was reviewing the document and fully intended to assume the agricultural preserve contract.
Cohen didn’t know anything about the Save the Valley group, and said claims that the Chumash wouldn’t be bound by the Williamson Act rules were unfounded.
“I think this lawsuit claims that we haven’t done it fast enough,” he told Noozhawk. “All they care about is media coverage and not the issue that’s in the complaint. The tribe bought the land subject to the Williamson Act contact and served counsel with notice of non renewal. The tribe has followed the rules.”
Armenta released a statement alleging that prior owners of Camp 4 didn’t file the assumption contract, either, calling the lawsuit “make-believe drama.”
“This frivolous lawsuit will only serve to waste the community's money and the court's time,” Armenta said.
Matt Mong, an associate from Christman Kelley & Clarke, which filed the suit, said he couldn’t speak to whether the previous land owners had filed the assumption agreement.
He said once Chumash leaders are served with the suit, they will have 30 days to respond with an answer or a motion to dismiss.