Tuesday, June 19 , 2018, 5:50 am | Fair 53º


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Judge Says He Lacks Jurisdiction in Valley Group’s Lawsuit Against Chumash

A Santa Maria judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed against members of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, citing tribal sovereign immunity that puts the case outside his jurisdiction.

Following three court hearings, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Timothy Staffel ruled this month to quash the civil suit filed in July by Save the Valley LLC, which was formed by a group of residents who live near the 138-acre reservation off Highway 246.

The suit named tribal chairman Vincent Armenta and Sam Cohen, the tribe’s government affairs and legal officer, for allegedly violating the state’s Williamson Act by not signing a contract yet still enjoying tax breaks on property the tribe is trying to place into federal trust.

The Williamson Act offers property tax relief to owners of farmland who maintain the agricultural use for a rolling 10-year period, guaranteeing the land will not be developed or converted to another use.

The Chumash bought a 1,400-plus-acre parcel near their reservation commonly called Camp 4 in 2010 from the late Fess Parker, with the intent of building tribal family homes, and the valley group alleged a contract wasn’t signed when the land changed hands, a requirement.

In a ruling dated Nov. 6, Staffel stated that sovereign immunity extended to the actions of tribal officials, “therefore, the court does not have subject matter jurisdiction.”

Since the suit was filed, the judge noted the Chumash had signed an assumption agreement with the county, although the tribe wrote a stipulation of sovereign immunity into the contract, which the county accepted as complete.

The ruling went on to say Save the Valley voluntarily dismissed without prejudice a second related suit against the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Oct. 14.

The county never appeared in court for the case, but the group filed suit in September to compel the county to force the Chumash to record a Williamson Act assumption agreement without the added text.

While the language was still a part of the signed agreement, county officials eventually conceded they did not approve the added language but did allow it, said Matthew Clarke, a Santa Barbara attorney representing the group.

On Wednesday, Clarke called the dismissal of the Chumash case unfortunate, but not the end of the fight for Save the Valley, which was formed to protest the tribe’s pursuit of the fee-to-trust process for Camp 4, which effectively would remove the land from the county’s tax rolls and from the oversight of county planning processes.

“We believe that the facts presented a situation where sovereign immunity did not apply, but we respect the courts difference of opinion,” Clarke said. “My client is steadfast in its belief that the tribal leaders must comply with their promise not to develop the property under the provisions of the Williamson act. We intend to seek reversal of this ruling in the Court of Appeal. Additionally, we also intend to pursue the matter in the federal court system.”

Armenta said he was pleased the court sided with his request to dismiss, and wasn’t surprised to hear an appeal was in the works.

“The dismissal was spot on,” Armenta said, down to the portion of the ruling noting any future lawsuits regarding the agreement should also include the county.

The chairman said he was surprised the Board of Supervisors voted in closed session last week to oppose any future ruling the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs might have regarding Camp 4’s fee-to-trust application — a decision Armenta hopes would be handed down by year’s end.

“What really shocked me is that they would appeal a decision that has not yet been made, nor have they read,” he said. “Perhaps something in a decision would enlighten them. In my mind, that really shows their true colors.”

Clarke said he hoped the recent supervisor decision could back his clients’ efforts.

“One of the ways to keep this property in check is to enforce the Williamson Act,” he said.

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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