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Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Over Chumash Casino Expansion

A U.S. District Court judge has thrown out the lawsuit filed by a Santa Ynez Valley group that sought to prevent the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians from expanding the casino on its reservation.

Judge R. Gary Klausner granted the tribe’s request to dismiss the case on Thursday, saying the court did not have jurisdiction because of tribal sovereign immunity, and due to a failure by Save the Valley LLC to show a necessary and indispensable party.

Santa Barbara attorney Matthew Clarke of Christman, Kelley & Clarke, PC filed the lawsuit on behalf of Save the Valley on April 3, requesting a permanent injunction for construction at the Chumash Casino Resort, located on the tribe’s federally recognized reservation at 3400 E. Highway 246 in Santa Ynez.

The Chumash tribe has begun work to add 215 hotel rooms, 584 parking spaces, gaming floor space and other improvements to ease overcrowding at the 190,000-square-foot complex.

The existing hotel has 106 guest rooms and 17 luxury suites.

Save the Valley and other reservation neighbors — along with the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors — have shared concerns about the project's impact to air quality, aesthetics, water supply, law-enforcement resources and more.

Because the tribe doesn’t have to adhere to the county planning process, however, tribal leaders were able to self-certify the project’s environmental evaluation last fall, including refutes to concerns and some concessions — like buying a taller ladder truck so fire crews can get to a new 12-story tower.

The Chumash also will fund more firefighting support and renewed a contract to pay the salaries of some Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies.

The expansion is expected to be completed in 2016, according to Tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta, who was named in the lawsuit along with the tribe and four tribal business committee members.

The judge concluded that sovereign immunity extended to tribal officers as well, dismissing a case seeking declaratory judgment.

“This was yet another frivolous lawsuit brought on by the local tribal opponents,” Armenta said in a statement. “Unfortunately, a small group of anti-tribal folks in the community have made it their mission in life to oppose our tribe on everything we do.

“The Save the Valley lawsuit was based on an intentional misreading of the 1935 deed to the U.S. Government, which specifically says the property that the tribe occupies is deeded for the purpose of an ‘Indian Reservation.’

"Tribal opponents have continually claimed that the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians is not a tribe and the Santa Ynez Reservation is not a reservation. However, significant historical documentation exists to prove otherwise.”

A Santa Maria judge dismissed another Save the Valley lawsuit in late 2014 for the same reason.

That suit accused the Chumash of violating the state’s Williamson Act because the tribe hadn’t yet signed a contract to enjoy tax breaks on the Camp 4 property the tribe is trying to place into federal trust.

In the most recent complaint, Save the Valley argued that the Catholic Church originally owned the reservation land, and that the tribe and government had no right to it. It also alleges the expansion violates state and local ordinances already governing the parcel.

Clarke lamented that the judge didn’t apply a state law that would allow a court to decide property rights of Indian tribes in spite of sovereignty.

“The Chumash have escaped reaching the merits of the federal lawsuit filed by Save the Valley, LLC, based on their claim of tribal sovereign immunity,” he said in a statement. “The Court did not decide the critical question raised by the lawsuit — was a Federal Indian Reservation ever established in Santa Ynez?

"In discussing the facts, the federal court did not agree with the Chumash that the land became a reservation in 1906, but agreed with Save the Valley about a 1906 legal restriction to ‘domestic use.’ Domestic use, of course, means household or family use, not commercial.

"This restriction obviously prohibits a 12-story casino and hotel, and explains why the Chumash want to avoid the real issues. To this day, the Chumash can produce no document showing the creation of their reservation. The public should challenge the Chumash to produce such a document.  

 “Save the Valley, LLC is resolved to reach the merits of the dispute with the Chumash.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff 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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