Santa Barbara County officials and residents are locked in a waiting game to see whether land acquisition requests made by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians will actually take effect.
At the forefront, the county Board of Supervisors awaits an outcome to its Sept. 11 appeal to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs asking the bureau to vacate its decision to grant the Chumash tribe 11,500 acres via a Tribal Consolidation and Acquisition Area Plan application.
That uncertainty became further muddied when the BIA recently deemed complete the tribe’s fee-to-trust application for Camp 4, a 1,400-acre swath of agricultural land near the 138-acre reservation that would reportedly be used for tribal housing.
The fee-to-trust process effectively removes the land from the county’s tax rolls and from the oversight of the county planning processes.
Officials are now scrambling to get the word out to residents, who either deeply care about the issue or aren’t privy to the details, so they can contribute input.
A complete Camp 4 application began a 30-day clock for comment on an environmental assessment, with a deadline of Oct. 7, said Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr, who represents the Santa Ynez Valley.
Farr said supervisors are set to consider whether to appeal the fee-to-trust application during an Oct. 15 meeting, although county officials have submitted a request for more time and to delay the discussion until November.
Far less is known about the TCA process, which supervisors said they appealed because the Bureau of Indian Affairs gave approval without public notice and because of a lack of proof to support the tribe’s land claims.
The Tribal Consolidation and Acquisition Area Plan essentially gives a kind of pre-approval for annexation within its designated boundaries, according to Farr. Without it, the tribe would have to make an individual case to federal officials for each acquisition.
What power the county appeal has over a subsequent BIA ruling on the TCA remains to be seen, since this is the first time one has been approved in California.
Farr said the Camp 4 ruling was particularly surprising, since supervisors asked in their official appeal that all fee-to-trust applications within the TCA boundaries be suspended.
“We really have no model out there,” she said. “I think this seems to be, unfortunately, symptomatic of perhaps other things going on in the BIA. You’d expect a clear process that you can understand and follow. We seem to have either no process or, if there is a process, it doesn’t seem to be followed.”
A staff member for the Pacific Regional Office Bureau of Indian Affairs, which approved the TCA last summer, said Friday that the office could not discuss the approval or how the TCA process works because of the pending appeal.
Repeated attempts to reach a federal BIA spokesperson for explanation of the process were also unsuccessful.
Sam Cohen, government and legal specialist with the Chumash, said he could not shed light on the appeal process, but he reiterated that the tribe didn't file the TCA to get around an approval process more easily.
“We would like to get the support of the county,” Cohen said, noting that additional land is desperately needed to house tribal families.
“We’re pretty confident that the Indian Affairs is going to approve our fee-to-trust acquisition for tribal housing. The Chumash are hopeful that the county will negotiate with the tribe for a cooperative agreement so we can make this a win-win project. We’re working within our process to take the land into trust as fast as possible.”
Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network, said she has done extensive research on the issue of land acquisition and fears the TCA decision will set a precedent throughout the state.
"We’re certainly aware of the issue and continue to engage with all parties to help resolve this dispute," said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Brown.
Both Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have sent a joint letter to the BIA in an effort to get some answers about the TCA process. Neither has taken a side in the matter.
Farr said several community groups have filed their own similar appeals to the BIA regarding the TCA approval.
Both Farr and Cohen encouraged county residents to make their opinions known in letters and comments of support.