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Congressional Committee Supports Chumash Camp 4 Fee-to-Trust Bill

A congressional committee has approved legislation authorizing the Camp 4 fee-to-trust land transfer sought by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, despite a no vote from Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara.

Camp 4 is the 1,400-acre property the tribe purchased from the Fess Parker estate in 2010.

The tribe's attempts to place the property into trust — adding it to the reservation and taking it out of county jurisdiction for the purposes of taxes and land-use oversight — have been met with fierce opposition locally.

“I continue to believe that direct negotiations between the tribe and county would provide the best long-term outcome for our community,” Capps said. “I oppose this legislation, especially while talks between the parties are ongoing, because it circumvents ongoing processes to find a local, mutually agreeable solution.”

With the Natural Resource Committee's approval, the next step would be HR 1157 going to the full House of Representatives.

The 29-1 vote was “certainly a vote of confidence for us,” Tribal Chairman Kenneth Kahn told Noozhawk after the vote. “The need for housing for our tribe is extremely important and very urgent.”

Kahn said he hopes the committee vote will show the issue's urgency and help with good faith negotiations when the county and tribe have more meetings. There is no set date for the next one, but it was planned for August, he said. 

“We’re certainly available, so we will make sure we get a date and show up with the intent to create an agreement that is good for the tribe and good for the overall community.”

Rep. Lois Capps Click to view larger
Rep. Lois Capps

The Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the application to place the land in trust in 2014, but the decision was appealed by Santa Barbara County and groups of private citizens. It’s unlikely the land will get transferred into federal trust until the appeals are resolved, according to Natural Resources Committee staff.  

The land placed in trust in this case wouldn’t be eligible for gaming, but there would be no other restrictions on land use.

If the BIA puts land into trust, it triggers the National Environmental Policy Act.

However, if Congress mandates putting land into trust, NEPA isn’t involved, and there is no BIA assessment of local impacts, according to the Natural Resources Committee memo on HR 1157.

HR 1157, as a legislative way to put Camp 4 into trust, “would waive NEPA and render the administrative appeal over BIA’s alleged violation of NEPA moot.”

The Department of the Interior took no position on the bill during a hearing last year since the appeals are pending.

Capps and Santa Barbara County urged the committee to delay action, asking for more time to develop a local solution, while Kahn asked for HR 1157 to be passed and get the land put into trust more quickly.

The tribe first proposed agreements in 2011 and didn't get responses for more than two years, he wrote. 

The county asked for a 100-year plan for the property and when the tribe developed a draft, nonbinding proposal, the county cited parts of it to argue against putting the land into trust, he wrote.

Kenneth Kahn Click to view larger
Kenneth Kahn

“While we recognize a legitimate role for local governments to have input into this process, they cannot legally enjoy veto power,” Kahn wrote.

“That prerogative is clearly reserved for Congress. We have done all in our power to bring local concerns to the table for debate. We have continually been rebuffed. Quite simply, we want our land back and we want to provide housing for our citizens.”

Lawsuits over taking a separate 6.9-acre property into trust, to build a museum and interpretive center, have lasted more than 12 years, which makes the tribe believe a legislative solution is necessary to get the land into trust in a timely way, he wrote.

“If such lawsuits are pursued for the preservation of 6.9 acres in which gravesites are found, we did not feel we could sacrifice housing for a generation of our tribal members over 1,400 for housing.”

During opening statements Tuesday afternoon and comments Wednesday morning, Capps told the committee she was extremely disappointed the bill was called for a vote despite her strong opposition to it.

“At the heart of this matter are issues of land management, preservation, development, agriculture and housing, issues that like many other communities we have been dealing with for decades,” she said. 

“This legislation, however, would remove the ability for a local resolution informed by those individuals and groups most intimately knowledgeable of the environment in question.”

The tribe does have a legitimate need for more housing, but the Chumash and their neighbors must find a path together, she said. 

A local resolution is the best way to ​“ease some of the local tensions and provide the best long-term outcome.”

Discussions have been difficult and often contentious, but Congress shouldn't preempt those discussions with legislative action, she said. 

The other members of the committee all voted in favor of HR 1157 Wednesday morning, in a 29-1 vote, and a few made comments saying Santa Barbara County has not been engaging in productive conversations with the tribe.

The county didn't start the meetings with the tribe until September 2015 and that process appeared “primarily as a stalling tactic to run out the congressional clock,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa of California. 

The county asked the tribe to create a 100-year-plan for the property and then used elements of it, such as the possibility of commercial use, to attack the tribe and the fee-to-trust plan, he said.

The Chumash own the land and it would address the tribe’s desperate need for housing, LaMalfa said.

Rep. Jeff Denham of California said there has not been a good faith effort on the county’s part so the federal government has an obligation to act.

“It’s not about neighbors, it’s about respecting tribal sovereignty,” he said.

On Wednesday, a committee member said he hopes the committee’s vote will provide the impetus for meaningful dialogue between the county and the tribe.

Santa Barbara County Supervisors Peter Adam and Doreen Farr, whose district includes the Santa Ynez Valley, asked the Natural Resources Committee to defer consideration of HR 1157 and allow discussions between the county and tribe to continue.

Adam, Farr and members of tribal leadership have held seven meetings since last September to discuss a local solution, including the option of a sovereign immunity waiver in which the tribe offered to pay a flat fee to offset county services costs and taking property off the tax rolls.

“The county is very encouraged by the tribe's willingness to continue to work toward a resolution of this matter,” they wrote in the letter.

“Therefore, it is imperative that the tribe and the county of Santa Barbara continue on the path to a mutually beneficial agreement and work in good faith at the local level to resolve these matters so critical to the overall health, safety and general wellbeing of those both the county and the tribe serve.”

The most vocal opponent of the fee-to-trust process,  a group called Save the Valley, told the committee HR 1157 violates due process since appeals are still pending.

“If Camp 4 is taken into trust, it will result in all land-use regulations and zoning ordinances being ‘tossed to the wind,’” wrote Steve Pappas, executive director of Save the Valley.

An earlier version of this story attributed comments to Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, which was incorrect. 

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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