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Tuesday, March 26 , 2019, 1:42 am | Fair 50º


Dialogue Between Chumash Tribe, Santa Barbara County Off to Solid Start

Newly formed ad hoc committee meets to find common ground, future discussion topics

Chumash Tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta and Vice Chairman Kenneth Kahn attended an ad hoc meeting Thursday with representatives of the Santa Barbara County government.
Chumash Tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta and Vice Chairman Kenneth Kahn attended an ad hoc meeting Thursday with representatives of the Santa Barbara County government. (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

The inaugural meeting of minds between Santa Barbara County and Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians officials yielded a surprisingly cordial discussion Thursday, considering the stakes and history between the two entities.

As promised, the first county Board of Supervisors ad hoc committee meeting with tribal leaders was open to the public at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott in Buellton, where dozens of residents turned out to see the county’s first stab at establishing government-to-government relations with the Chumash.

All in all, the discussion about the tribe’s fee-to-trust applications and matters of mutual interest went according to plan, albeit with a tinge of tension over land use.

So well, in fact, that committee members Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr, Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam, Tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta and Vice Chairman Kenneth Kahn scheduled three more meetings before the end of 2015.

The sit-down was long overdue, said public speakers, who expressed worry over future tribal expansion — a concern shared by Farr and Adam.

Meeting attendees were well aware the county and Chumash are still tangled in a lawsuit over the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs' decision to allow the tribe to place a 1,433-acre agricultural property known as Camp 4 into federal trust — thereby removing it from county tax rolls and planning oversight.

That appeal — along with other objections from valley groups — has yet to be heard, and Farr made clear meeting with the tribe now doesn’t negate that.

“We need to start from scratch,” Adam said during his opening statement, preferring to focus on future agreements and not ones proposed in the past.

Armenta and Kahn said they were grateful to finally meet with county officials to respectfully discuss future opportunities and common ground instead of standing as adversaries.

Sam Cohen, the tribe's government affairs and legal officer, started the meeting by presenting a deal the Chumash offered the county in 2011 when it filed the Camp 4 fee-to-trust application.

The tribe offered to pay $1 million a year for 10 years in lieu of lost property taxes — a cooperative agreement ignored at the time.

How to best compensate the county for lost tax revenue dominated discussion.

Adam questioned whether an agreement should be based on the value of property or on direct costs lost, and Armenta agreed the committee should take a look at what that formula should look like.

The Chumash already pay mitigations in the form of expanded county Fire Department and Sheriff’s Department contracts, since the departments serve its 138-acre reservation and casino at 3400 E. Highway 246.

“As we move forward and develop future topics, it’s important the tribe understand and know what’s acceptable in terms of trust applications,” Armenta said referring to financials. “It’s difficult to have those conversations if the county doesn’t say what they would support.

“Is the position of the county to make money or to offset the direct costs?”

Adam, in turn, asked tribal leaders to come back with a better idea of goals related to newly acquired property.

In addition to the Camp application — the Chumash plan to build 143 homes for tribal families on that land— the tribe also recently filed applications to take two reservation-adjoining parcels totaling two acres into federal trust.

The tribe also bought 350 acres of land (“triangle property”) between Meadowvale Road and Highway 154 along Highway 246.

The Mooney and Escobar properties are zoned as retail/commercial and have some tax value, although the county couldn’t provide an exact amount.

“I need to understand what the overall plan is,” Adam said. “I just want to know the big picture. How big does it get?”

Cohen explained that the northwest 300 acres of Camp 4 would remain wine-producing vines alongside homes and a new tribal administration building, health clinic and wastewater treatment plant.

Mooney and Escobar — so-named after the owners the tribe bought land from — are east of the casino and are essentially ornamental landscaping in a Caltrans easement, granting access to the lower reservation, Cohen said.

He described the triangle property as a legacy project or asset scooped up after the Chumash spent three years trying to locate the land owner, who lives in Europe.

“I think it’s important that the county and the tribe agree or at least have conversations on … the need for additional land to be brought into the reservation rather than asking for specifics,” Armenta said.

He hoped the county could accommodate tribal expansion like that of a city growing onto county land.

Farr asked that future meetings include revisiting the Camp 4 fee-to-trust application and mitigation concerns, with Adam and Armenta adding in other suggestions.

“The more information we have, the better agreement we can reach,” she said. “All right, well, we’ve got quite a list.”

They agreed future meetings will also be at the Buellton Marriott, from 9 a.m. to noon, on Oct. 19, Nov. 12 and Dec. 10.

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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