For what was once a sleepy little paradise tucked away in the hills, the Santa Ynez Valley seems to generate more than its share of high-megaton issues.

The latest explosion is the Camp 4 land dispute. The Chumash tribe has acquired the scenic agricultural property and now wants to develop part of it with homes on one-acre sites for tribal members and their families.

But, to do that, the tribe must either apply to Santa Barbara County with a plan to develop the land as private property — which we believe the tribe should do — or navigate its way through a fee-to-trust transaction. That’s the federal process that would annex the 1,400 acres at the northeast corner of Highways 154 and 246 into the tribe’s reservation.

If the fee-to-trust shift is accomplished, the tribe’s reservation will grow from 130 acres to more than 1,500 acres, all sovereign land that isn’t subject to local laws of planning, zoning or taxation.

The magnitude of this proposal is not lost on other Valley residents, many of whom have been very vocal in opposition to the tribe’s various expansion proposals in the past. The opposition has organized into groups, which don’t have much trouble filling the Solvang Veterans Memorial Building for town-hall meetings on anything related to the Chumash, the hotel and casino, or tribal growth plans.

A big part of the problem is a lack of trust between the tribe and its critics. Tribal officials, for example, insist the Camp 4 acquisition and annexation are a matter of cultural pride and identity and a means of furthering the tribe’s climb out of abject poverty. Critics scoff at that notion, because they know that once the fee-to-trust transaction is complete, the tribe, as a sovereign nation, gets tremendous tax advantages and is free to do as it pleases with the property.

They fear enormous community impacts regardless of how the property is developed. The Chumash are saying that it would make no sense to build another casino so close to their current one. Fine, but a golf course, hotel, retail center and housing, for example, would be possibilities on the larger reservation, and those uses would cause enormous impacts on the rest of us.

The tribe is countering its skeptics with a vigorous public-relations campaign, replete with full-page newspaper ads about the Chumash heritage and tribal members’ ties to the land, which of course predate the arrival of white settlers by generations. The county Board of Supervisors has been blitzed by form letters signed by tribal employees.

Most recently, the tribe has distributed a report it commissioned, touting the economic stimulus that would be generated by developing the Camp 4 property into home sites.

But there was a glaring omission in the tribe’s economic impact report — what would be the negatives? Any major development in the Valley brings with it increased traffic, greater demands on water supplies, public safety and other services that are not mentioned in the tribe’s report.

We’ve said it before, and we continue to believe that the tribe should abide by the same rules as any other developer in the county rather than trying to annex Camp 4 into its reservation. There’s no other way to truly meet and resolve other people’s opposition.

The Chumash and their business enterprises are powerful economic entities, providing hundreds of jobs and security for folks who might otherwise not enjoy those things. All the while, business conducted on a reservation gets huge tax advantages, a fact that many of the tribe’s neighbors resent. 

The irony is that the tribe has the knowledge, skills and resources to handle the county’s planning process with relative ease, compared to any other applicant in the Santa Ynez Valley. And until the Chumash agree to do that, we cannot support development of the Camp 4 property.

 

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