In a brief announcement after emerging from a closed session Tuesday, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors quietly dropped a bombshell — it intends to appeal a move by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians to pave the way for adding thousands of acres to their tribal lands.
Some board members expressed concern last month that the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, without any public notice, had approved a Tribal Consolidation and Acquisition Area Plan for the Chumash that includes almost 12,000 acres, the majority of which is held by private landowners.
On Tuesday, the board voted 4-1, with Supervisor Salud Carbajal opposed, to appeal that administrative decision, which if it stands would make it much easier for the Chumash to add to their reservation lands.
The Tribal Consolidation and Acquisition Area Plan essentially gives a kind of pre-approval for annexation within its designated boundaries. Without it, the tribe would have to make an individual case to federal officials for each acquisition.
The tribe, which has legal sovereignty on its 138-acre reservation, also recently filed an application with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to annex 1,400 acres near its tribal lands through a process called fee-to-trust.
If approved, the property, known as Camp 4, 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.
Opponents of the move say that rules are significantly more lenient for fee-to-trust property than for lands under the county's jurisdiction, and don't call for a careful weighing and balancing of interests of state and local government standards.
Last month, the supervisors rejected a request from the Chumash for a "government to government" dialogue on the Camp 4 proposal to add the large swath of agricultural land to the tribe's reservation.
Instead, the board directed county staff to meet with tribal representatives like any other landowner.
Carbajal said he couldn't elaborate on closed session discussion or votes.
Sam Cohen, government and legal specialist with the Chumash, told Noozhawk that the move was not unexpected.
"We were disappointed but not surprised," he said, adding that now that the the decision is in litigation, the tribe will wait for the county to file and respond accordingly.
Earlier in the meeting, about 10 people spoke out during public comment, urging the supervisors to take action on the decision.
Santa Ynez Resident Bob Field lives in the tribal consolidation area and also works for the Santa Ynez Rancho Estates Mutual Water Co., one of several small water agencies in the valley.
The company has several wells in the tribal consolidation area that service homes, he said.
"If the federal government takes these parcels into trust, will the wells still be protected?" he asked, stating that he hasn't gotten a straight answer from attorneys familiar with the project.
Robert Etling, a real estate agent in the Santa Ynez Valley, said he's lost an escrow in the area already because of the TCA, but said the bigger loss is for the county not to be able "to plan and protect" the valley as a whole.
Opponents of the expansion breathed a sigh of relief at the news Tuesday.
Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network, who was been a critic of the move, called the decision "momentous."
"This BIA approval was unprecedented. It lowered the standard of review for taking these properties Fee-to-Trust, placed close to 10,000 acres of privately owned land into legal limbo, and was approved without any formal notice or opportunity for public comment or objection," she said.
Jordan also said it's "critical that the governor and the California attorney general join the county in appealing this decision."
To see a map of the Tribal Consolidation Area: