Santa Barbara County officials are not particularly fond of a planned expansion of the Chumash Casino Resort — or the accompanying impacts of a new 12-story tower — and on Tuesday they passed those concerns on to staff, which will meet with tribal leaders later this week.
The county Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to direct staff to relay concerns about air quality, aesthetics, water supply, law-enforcement resources and more to representatives of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians on Thursday.
The recommendations were made reluctantly, however, since officials know the tribe, which owns and operates the casino and resort on its federally-recognized reservation at 3400 E. Highway 246 in Santa Ynez, does not have to adhere to the county’s planning process.
The tribe plans to add 215 hotel rooms, 584 parking spaces, more gaming floor space, and other improvements to alleviate overcrowding and circulation issues at the 190,000-square-foot complex, with construction slated to begin as soon as this fall.
Tribal chairman Vincent Armenta, who was in the audience at Tuesday’s meeting in Santa Maria, has said expansion is necessary because the hotel was dramatically downsized during a previous tribal environmental review process — hampering the tribe’s long-term revenue.
The tribe opened the original casino in 1994 in a small building, adding two temporary buildings in subsequent years before consolidating into one complex that opened in 2004.
The proposed project would be built over two years, and would create 250 new jobs, according to the tribe.
Locals were given a chance to present concerns at a meeting last month, although few spoke on the project’s environmental evaluation, a process consistent with tribal government rules.
County staff presented the Chumash plans, which will allocate approximately $165 million to add to the existing 106 guest rooms and 17 luxury suites at the resort hotel.
Concerns included potential air-quality impacts, an increase in traffic (especially for special events), proximity to the Santa Ynez Airport, and fire and safety concerns with the 12-story tower and hotel rooftop pool deck near the existing four-story hotel.
Sheriff Bill Brown noted the possibility of hiring another deputy to patrol the area, which also adds a new six-tier parking structure adjacent to current parking. One around-the-clock position is equivalent of hiring five deputies.
The tribe estimates it would serve 10,000 patrons per day instead of the current daily average of 8,800.
“I think the height of that tower is going to be a significant issue,” said Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf, who questioned availability of water resources.
Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr, who represents the valley, read a letter from the governor’s office, asking that an additional environmental impact statement be conducted to address water concerns, visual impacts and alternatives to the tall tower.
Most public speakers objected to the expansion, calling the proposed tower “outrageous” and worrying that the tribe will build more than representatives have let on.
Water remained a main concern, especially after Chris Dahlstrom, general manager Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, said no new water service was allowed to be issued because of the drought.
He said the tribe has not yet applied for a service increase.
“Nothing is going to get solved in the valley until we establish a government-to-government relationship with the tribe,” said Orcutt resident Andy Caldwell.
First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal made a similar comment, lamenting loss of that dialogue.
County CEO Mona Miyasato said nothing in state law requires the county and tribe to reach a mitigation agreement. The state just has to decide the Chumash made a “good faith” effort to listen to concerns, she said.
Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam asked whether Thursday’s meeting would be open to the public, but Miyasato said there was no requirement that it should be.
Farr said she agreed with staff concerns, and motioned they be forwarded along.
“This is a land-use issue,” she said. “These concerns are exacerbated because this is a project on tribal land. Clearly, if it did (fall under county planning), it would require a massive environmental impact review.”