Casino-rich California tribes use status to circumvent zoning and taxes, angering neighbors
First of two parts
For years, Parker, the actor best known as television's Daniel Boone, was thwarted in his efforts to develop 1,400 acres of rolling green hills known as Camp 4 nestled in the lush Santa Ynez Valley. Shortly before he died in 2010, however, Parker sold the property to the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians for $42 million.
What Parker could not do - build a hotel, a vineyard and a winery on the Santa Barbara County parcel zoned for agricultural use - the 140-member Chumash tribe can.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs agreed in 2014 to take the property into trust, meaning that the acreage is now federal property and no longer subject to Santa Barbara County's strict zoning codes. Tribes also benefit from a tax break on trust land, which essentially becomes part of the reservation and thus exempt from most state and local taxation.
The Chumash have designated a section for tribal housing and a community center, but it's the tribe's plans for the rest of the property - which are still unclear - that have neighbors up in arms. The casino-rich band unveiled in March a map that included a commercial zone, raising fears that the Chumash will transform the isolated farming and ranching valley into a gambling and resort mecca.
"I think the casino was just the beginning," said Leslie Mosteller, a small-business owner who moved to the area two years ago to take advantage of its world-class stables. "I think what they want to do is basically build Las Vegas."
Santa Ynez isn't the only community grappling with the unforeseen consequences of Indian gambling. The booming 15-year-old industry has fueled a tribal land-buying spree, spurring development that is colliding with environmentally conscious communities that have long held the line on sprawl.
Exacerbating the conflict is the Bureau of Indian Affairs with its aggressive push to take lands into trust on behalf of tribes. The directive comes from President Obama himself, who pledged at the outset of his first term to expand tribal trust land by 500,000 acres. So far, the bureau has taken about 300,000 acres into trust.
"There's a small group of people that has opposed the tribe in every which way possible," said Mr. Kahn. "There's a lot of concern out there, there's a lot of propaganda that gets pushed around. For us, the challenge is educating the community about what the fee-to-trust process is really about."
Besides, advocates of Indian gambling sites argue that the benefits outweigh the costs: Tribes are spurring economic development and providing jobs to entire communities while lifting tribal members out of poverty. Tribal governments have increasingly pursued agreements with counties that include payments in lieu of taxes to mitigate the revenue hit from trust land taken off the tax rolls.
When push comes to shove, however, even the most litigious community can do little to stop a tribe from developing fee-to-trust land, as Santa Barbara County residents know all too well. Exhibit A is the 12-story hotel tower under construction at the Chumash Casino Resort, located on the Chumash reservation about two miles from Camp 4.
For years, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and county officials tried to stop the Chumash from erecting the tower and five-story parking garage next to the casino in an agricultural valley whose tallest building is three stories.
The Chumash, citing the project's benefit to the tourism economy and job growth, built the tower anyway. The 215-bed hotel, which includes another 584 parking spaces and an additional 75,000 square feet of gambling floor space, is expected to open this summer.
"The community was OK with the casino. We could live with it," said Steve Pappas, who has lived in Los Olivos for 26 years and heads Save the Valley. "It's when that 12-story building went up in the middle of this beautiful valley - that was the step that triggered a lot of the community outrage."
California as 'ground zero'
California also has more tribes, with 110, than any other state except Alaska. Sixty-three of those tribes operated 72 gambling facilities in 2014, as reported in Casino City's 2016 Indian Gaming Industry Report.
Unlike in Oklahoma and other states with large, well-established reservations, California's tribes splintered as regimes changed under successive Spanish, Mexican and U.S. governments. Starting in 1906, homeless Indians from various bands were grouped together onto Rancherias until the California Rancheria Act of 1953 dissolved them.
Today, it's not uncommon to have tribes with fewer than 100 members located in or near dense population centers, making California "ground zero" for the conflict over gambling, said David Rabbitt, a Sonoma County supervisor and co-chairman of the California State Association of Counties' tribal gambling workshop.
"We have 20 percent of all the 566 federally recognized tribes here. We have a couple of tribes here that have one adult member. It's just a different scenario than many other places in the country," Mr. Rabbitt said. "Plus, California is obviously a very populated state. You have a lot of tribes that are in established communities, for better or worse. And you're on each other's toes."
The Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians has one adult member and a casino: the Augustine Casino in Coachella.
Feeding resentment is the perception that the game has been rigged on behalf of a wealthy few. A small tribe with a casino can generate vast wealth for individuals under a federal revenue allocation plan in which members divide a percentage of profits.
Tribes tend to be tight-lipped about the amount of the per capita allotments, but the Chumash's monthly checks have been estimated at $30,000 to $60,000 per member, representing a staggering economic turnaround for a tribe that had no running water on its reservation until the 1960s.
Even some of those who voted for the 2000 California ballot initiative reserving casino-style gambling for tribes - and who cheer the measure's success in uplifting some of the state's poorest residents - have cried foul over the specter of 140 fabulously wealthy people plowing ahead with plans over the objections of their neighbors.
"The idea was to bring them out of poverty, but what it has turned into is a land acquisition scheme where large areas are being purchased, taken into trust and developed for something else," said Santa Ynez resident Andie Culbertson, an urban planner and land use lawyer.
She and her husband, David, a voting member of the 300,000-member Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, are among those opposing the Chumash's effort to take Camp 4 into trust.
"I don't have a problem with them buying land or developing it, but they should have to develop it by the same rules my husband and I have to follow," said Mrs. Culbertson. "I mean, they're wealthy one-percenters. Why do they need this extraordinary accommodation?"
Calls for 'one law for all'
The casino-rich band has applied for federal trust status on a 500-acre parcel that would include housing and a community center - the Lyttons were left with no home after the federal government dissolved their reservation in 1961 - as well as a resort and a large winery.
The board of supervisors supports the application, but some residents object because the project would spill into an area now zoned for agriculture that includes a rare stand of 1,500 blue oak trees.
"This would blot out the entire west side of our town. It would take this bucolic - think of rolling hills, think of Italy, with a one-lane road, a country road - and build 300-some luxury homes, a 200-room hotel and a 100,000-case winery," Mr. Wee said. "That's huge. That's like a mega-winery. People get turned down here because of water issues and other stuff for a 10,000-case winery."
Citizens for Windsor's motto is "One Law for All," including tribal members.
The frustration for tribes is that even though the federal government recognizes them as sovereign nations, local officials treat them too often as regular developers or interest groups.
"These are sovereign nations. Counties aren't even sovereign nations," said Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. "And as we point out periodically, counties don't dictate to other counties, so why should they dictate to other governments?"
The size of the tribe shouldn't matter, she said.
"All I can say is that tribal governments are governments. Are you trying to say size dictates whether you're a government or not? That's not how it is," said Ms. Pata.
She emphasized that the Bureau of Indian Affairs' fee-to-trust push represents an effort to help tribes regain ancestral land or homeland sold off before the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act ended the practice. The history is replete with stories of abuse, such as cases of men who married Indian women, sold their land and then divorced them.
What's more, the tribes aren't asking anyone to return the land - they're buying it themselves.
"This is a land restoration project," said Ms. Pata. "A lot of parcels might be within reservation boundaries that may have been lost to non-Natives in the past."
The Chumash may not be subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, but the band does have to follow federal environmental law as well as fulfill the Bureau of Indian Affairs' mandate for casino funds to benefit the tribe.
"Gaming is for the benefit of tribes to be able to be sustainable and thrive economically, and that means programs, that means services, that means infrastructure, that means strong administrative government, "Mr. Kahn said. "I don't own this casino. I go to fundraisers and people think I can buy the whole table, and it's like, 'You don't get it. It's not my casino.'"
Trouble in paradise
The Reagan ranch, Rancho del Cielo, overlooks the valley, and a few low-key celebrities such as singer David Crosby live here, but the ambiance is rural, not ritzy. Farms with specialty crops such as strawberries and wineries flourish - the 2004 wine-lovers' movie "Sideways" was filmed here - while Black Angus cattle meander through pastures along scenic Highway 154.
That the area has retained its agrarian character is no accident. Santa Barbara County has long deflected attempts to commercialize the valley of 20,000 residents, earning the planning board a reputation as what local radio host Andy Caldwell calls "the black hole of environmental review."
In 2004, however, the Chumash struck it rich with the casino, ultimately becoming the valley's largest employer with 1,700 workers at its hotels and gambling operation. The result has been near-constant tension with the county as the band moves to diversify its holdings and expand its footprint.
The county has appealed the Bureau of Indian Affairs' decision on Camp 4. As far as Mr. Caldwell is concerned, however, the county should throw in its cards and try to strike the best deal possible.
"The biggest mistake that the county has made - they are so used to having everybody over a barrel that they can't fathom that they don't have the final authority over this issue of land use because the tribe is under federal jurisdiction. They're not under county jurisdiction," said Mr. Caldwell, who heads the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, whose members include the tribe.
"So I've always said, 'You need to mitigate and negotiate instead of litigate, because you're going to lose,'" he said.
At the center of the Camp 4 debate is housing. The tribe wants to construct 143 houses on 1-acre lots to allow the entire band to live together on what would become an extension of the rocky 130-acre reservation, which is bisected by a creek.
"The land for the tribe, that's the essence of our sovereignty," said Mr. Kahn. "In order for us to exist, we have to have a reservation, we have to be able to operate as a government and provide programming, we need our folks to live within the tribal jurisdiction."
But the plan has drawn skepticism from locals. For one, critics ask why a band of millionaires, any number of whom own second and even third homes, needs more housing other than for tax breaks.
The tightly packed Chumash reservation is a study in contrasts. Neat but small stucco homes, built as part of a 1970s federal housing project, flank driveways filled with sleek Ford F-150s, Range Rovers, recreational vehicles and boats.
Tribal members own so many vacation properties in the Lake Tahoe area that it's known as "Chumash North," according to the Los Angeles Times. The tribe is also shrinking as its elders die even though more than 1,200 tribal "lineal descendants," such as children and grandchildren, remain unenrolled.
If the Chumash really wanted nothing more than housing and a community center, say critics, they could request a variance from the county without taking the land into federal trust. Some locals have pushed to offer the tribe fast-track approval on housing in exchange for pulling the fee-to-trust application.
Mr. Kahn said stories of the tribe's wealth are exaggerated. Enrolled members are "comfortable," he said, but only three families own condos on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
The tribe also has expenses. The Chumash run their own government but contract with the county for additional fire, police and animal control services. The tribe is paying tuition for about 500 members' children and grandchildren.
"Our housing shortage is an issue, and if we went through a local process with the county, that's not going to expand the opportunities for the tribe to thrive in the future," Mr. Kahn said. "The tribe won't be able to provide the benefits to the membership through subsidizing infrastructure. And for some of the cultural, education and health programs, it helps to be in the tribal jurisdiction."
Local lawyer Brian Kramer promptly filed a brief with the Interior Department arguing that the trust decision should be invalidated because the tribe failed to disclose the extent of its development plans.
"I can tell you pretty much unequivocally that what we've been talking about all these dozens of years is not 143 houses," Los Olivos resident Mike Brady said at a subsequent board meeting.
Mr. Armenta withdrew the proposal a few days later but not before accusing county officials of overreacting. He described the map as a response to the county's frequent requests for more information on the tribe's plans for Camp 4, as well as a starting point for negotiations, not a fait accompli.
"You're asking us to think of ideas, we do, and you turn around and use it against us. I don't find that to be negotiations," Mr. Armenta said at the March 15 meeting.
Meanwhile, county supervisor Peter Adam said he felt like he had been played by the tribe. "Negotiation is about putting something together that works for everybody, and I feel like we really tried to do that," said Mr. Adam, "but I feel like I've been worked, frankly."
Despite the bad blood, the board of supervisors and tribe have agreed to resume talks in September. A few things will have changed: June elections mean the five-member board will have at least one new face. Mr. Armenta stunned the community in March by announcing that he would step down to attend culinary school in New York.
Shortly before he stepped down, however, Mr. Armenta threatened to play the tribe's ace by doing what opponents of the Camp 4 annexation dread most: calling on Congress to pass a bill that would cut them out of the process.
Next: Congress brings its chips to the table.
California tribes' casino wealth draws Congress into local zoning disputes
SANTA YNEZ, Calif. - As far as Rep. Lois Capps is concerned, the ongoing skirmish over development fueled by tribal gambling in her Santa Barbara County district is a local matter - not a platform for lawmakers like U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who lives hundreds of miles away.
Over her objections, however, Mr. LaMalfa has become a key player in the feud over a 1,400-acre parcel known as Camp 4. His bill would take into federal trust the property on behalf of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, allowing the tribe to bypass the appeals process and develop the acreage free of local zoning restrictions.
Ms. Capps' message to Mr. LaMalfa? Mind your own business.
Clashes between California's casino-rich tribes and their development-averse neighbors are now being fought in the corridors of power in Washington some 3,000 miles away, where Indian country is increasingly turning to Congress to weigh in on its behalf.
In the case of the Chumash, the 140-member tribe seeks to build housing 2 miles from its crowded reservation, but locals fear the proposed 143 houses could lead to bigger projects - such as another casino.
The Chumash have found a champion in Mr. LaMalfa, a Republican who says he feels an obligation to intervene as the senior Californian on the House Natural Resources subcommittee on Indian, insular and Alaska Native affairs. His 1st District takes up much of the state's northeast corner, bordering Nevada and Oregon.
He has clashed with Santa Ynez residents fighting the tribe's annexation attempt, calling them "anti-growth extremists."
His legislation would short-circuit the appeals process and bring Camp 4 into trust with the Bureau of Indian Affairs immediately, but would ban a casino in a nod to the concerns of the wealthy agricultural community.
But locals are suspicious of Mr. LaMalfa's motives, saying his interest in their community may have more to do with cash than conscience.
Mr. Kahn called the pay-to-play accusations "ludicrous."
On the other side, citizens groups in Santa Ynez alone have spent millions of dollars on appeals and lawsuits related to Camp 4, which the LaMalfa bill would "completely emasculate," Doug Herthel, who heads Preservation of Los Olivos, said at a public hearing.
His organization's lawsuit, now before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, would throw out the Chumash's Camp 4 application based on a 2009 Supreme Court decision in Salazar v. Carcieri, which ruled that the federal government cannot take into trust land on behalf of tribes not federally recognized before the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.
That decision has become a lifeline for communities nationwide fighting tribal efforts to gain trust status for property acquired in the recent land-buying spree fueled by casino riches. The ruling would appear to apply to the Chumash, who were not federally recognized until 1964.
What outrages locals is that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has continued to take land into trust on behalf of post-1934 tribes despite the Carcieri decision. At the same time, the ruling has provided an opportunity for federal lawmakers grappling with the unforeseen consequences of Indian gambling sites.
Playing with a stacked deck
He recalled how he and others were convinced that the Graton would never build a casino on fee-to-trust land because of its proximity to other Indian gambling operations. He was wrong: The Graton Resort & Casino opened in November 2013.
"I kind of cut my teeth on this opposing a very large casino project further south in Sonoma County on Highway 101 in Rohnert Park that was by the Graton tribe. That's the biggest casino in the North Bay by far," Mr. Huffman said.
Mr. Huffman has come under fire in his district for a bill, H.R. 2538, that would allow another tribe, the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, to take 124 acres into trust "for housing and other non-gaming purposes." In other words, no casino.
The legislation faces staunch opposition by a Sonoma County citizens group, Citizens for Windsor, led by Eric Wee.
"Congressman Huffman's whole raison d'etre is to say, 'We're going to stop a casino from ever being built there.' He says that's the reason he's doing this: It's going to go into trust anyway, and so there's this whole inevitability argument," Mr. Wee said. "But anyone who knows this area knows that that argument doesn't really hold water."
He pointed to the Graton resort. "When Graton went up, everything north of Graton became economically unviable in the casino area," Mr. Wee said.
"I opposed [the Graton casino], and it's a little bit surreal hearing the arguments by Mr. Wee and others that they think could carry the day with the Lytton tribe," Mr. Huffman said. "All of that and more was thrown against the wall with Graton, and I know that because I was throwing it against the wall. And we lost at every turn."
As a result, Mr. Huffman said, "There's a bit of a sobering effect when you go through a fight like that and just get nowhere. You begin to realize just how strongly stacked in favor of the tribes these BIA land-to-trust processes are."
In addition, "I can assure [you] that any tribe along Highway 101 that can build a casino would love to build a casino," Mr. Huffman said. "It may not be the Taj Mahal, but there's money in it. That's why you have tribes from the Smith River near the Oregon border on down trying to be the one closest to San Francisco."
Unlike Mr. LaMalfa, Mr. Huffman lives in the district affected by the bill. The Huffman bill also has the support of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.
In Santa Ynez, however, the county board has made some powerful enemies on the Indian affairs subcommittee. At a June hearing, subcommittee Chairman Don Young, Alaska Republican, threatened to move the LaMalfa bill unless the board of supervisors sat down again with the tribe.
The board has since held seven meetings with the Chumash, but talks were suspended in March after the Chumash introduced a zoning map that included commercial development as well as housing. Locals opposed to the annexation were flabbergasted.
"This latest proposal by tribal government seems to be a giant step out of bounds and undermines the progress that has been made on both sides," Joan Hartmann, a planning commissioner running for supervisor in the June 7 election, said at a public hearing. "It risks compromising the good will that has characterized discussions between the county and tribal government thus far."
With the threat of the LaMalfa bill hanging over its head, however, the board has little choice but to continue negotiations, which are slated to resume in August.
Some locals believe the bill is dead, but Mr. Kahn said that is not the case.
The 'Carcieri fix'
"We're asking Congress if they can establish a statutory framework for notification, for comment period, for incentivizing these agreements so that we do have a cooperative way forward," said David Rabbitt, co-chairman of the California State Association of Counties' tribal gambling workshop. "Not sacrificing anything the tribes need in terms of sovereignty or economic development but really just trying to put some framework around it that we all can understand and follow that's transparent and gives people the opportunity to comment."
The "Carcieri fix" best poised to pass this year is S. 1879, sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. The measure would establish a framework for fee-to-trust decisions instead of relying on the Bureau of Indian Affairs' administrative process, which is subject to change with administrations.
"This bipartisan bill was built with tribal input and eliminates unnecessary hurdles for tribes to increase economic development opportunities," Mr. Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Indian Affairs Committee, said last year after introducing his latest bill.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, who has fought to give localities more control over land taken into trust by casino-rich tribes as well as curb the practice of "reservation shopping," in which tribes seek trust status on parcels with little or no ancestral connection but are well-situated for casinos.
Cheryl Schmit, who heads the Indian-gambling watchdog group Stand Up For California, said the Barrasso bill unnecessarily limits the rights of appeal to government entities, but she agrees that reform is needed.
"In Placer County, we were very, very fortunate," said Ms. Schmit. "We have the United Auburn [Indian] Community, and when they saw that the community was upset, they said, 'Hey, we've been here forever. Let's work together.' They listened, the citizens listened, we came up with ideas."