GAMING THE SYSTEM Casino-rich California tribes battle over growth with anti-sprawl neighbors
CSANTA YNEZ, CALIFORNIA all it Fess Parker’s revenge. 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 smallbusiness 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.
Chumash tribal Chairman Kenneth Kahn says the conflict represents a fundamental misunderstanding of tribal sovereignty. The Chumash tribe is a sovereign nation, not a Wal-Mart that can be scared off by a vocal not-in-my-backyard contingent.
“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
Fess Parker (right) talks with Vincent Armenta, chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. The tribe’s purchase of Parker’s land set off a bitter dispute.