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Santa Ynez Valley Group Files Suit Against County Supervisors Over Chumash Property

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors is facing a lawsuit for not enforcing a state requirement related to proper paperwork and tax breaks on land owned by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

The lawsuit, which Santa Barbara attorney Matthew Clarke filed on behalf of Save the Valley LLC last Friday, alleges that county officials and counsel have blatantly ignored the Santa Ynez activists’ pleas to bring the local tribe in line with the Williamson Act.

In July, the group filed suit against Chumash tribal chairman Vincent Armenta and Sam Cohen, the tribe’s government affairs and legal officer, for violating that act and for failing to properly fill out paperwork needed to receive tax breaks the tribe enjoyed for years on the property it’s trying to place into federal trust.

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

The process is supposed to occur whenever the land changes hands.

Members of Save the Valley, whose names are unknown, don’t believe the Chumash immediately signed an assumption of the Williamson Act, and, therefore, shouldn’t have seen more than $1 million in tax breaks the past three years.

Land at issue is a 1,400-plus-acre parcel called Camp 4, which the Chumash purchased from the Fess Parker family in 2010 with the intent of building tribal family homes on the reservation-adjacent property.

The tribe hopes to put the land into federal trust, which would remove it from the county’s tax rolls and planning oversight.

Tribal leaders in July said they had sent county counsel a notice of non-renewal of its Williamson Act contract, and were working to file the assumption notice in question.

In the latest lawsuit, the group continues to ask the Chumash to immediately sign an assumption agreement with the county — publicly acknowledging it is bound by the act’s development restrictions — and to pay for the group’s attorney fees.

The filing alleges county counsel did nothing when Save the Valley requested the change in late July, taking the “outrageous position” that a Chumash-altered assumption agreement citing federal and tribal law was sufficient.

County counsel could not be reached for comment, or to confirm receipt of the suit, but officials have previously said they're working with the tribe to complete the assumption agreement.

The Chumash has requested the first case be dismissed based on tribal sovereign immunity, which Cohen said extends to elected officials and employees.

He said an oral argument in that case was set for Sept. 17 in Santa Barbara Superior Court in Santa Maria before Judge Timothy Staffel.

The tribal chairman has previously called the lawsuit — one the tribe has yet to be formally served with — “make believe drama.”

Responding for his clients, Clarke said Save the Valley activists believe tribal leaders will be held to answer in state court, where the case should be heard.

“The Chumash executives assert in public that the Chumash intend to comply with the Williamson Act provisions for the next nine years,” Clarke said in a statement.

“Yet, the Chumash refuse to sign and record a basic, mandatory written promise to be bound by those provision. Instead, the Chumash executives inserted their own language into the required form refusing to be bound by and disclaiming California state law. 

“It is very discouraging that the county is showing the Chumash executives preferential and disparate treatment. Save the Valley challenges the county to show the public another instances where it allowed a Williamson Act landowner to refuse to sign the approved assumption agreement.” 

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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