The expansion of the Chumash casino in Santa Ynez may be seriously compromised if the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors gets its way. Under the guise of environmental concern, the county and the Santa Ynez band of Indians have drawn up battle lines. But the real issue is whether the county, or even the state, has the legitimate authority to impose development restrictions on the tribal land of a sovereign nation.

The Chumash tribe has plans to expand its current casino by adding 21,600 square-feet to their operation. The temporary structure, to be erected by May, would serve as the centerpiece for a proposed multi-million dollar expansion to be completed at a later date. To meet its obligations under the tribal gaming compact, the Chumash released a 200-page environmental assessment, which detailed plans for a 1,100-space, five-level parking garage – the largest in Santa Barbara County. The document also contained a proposal for two new traffic signals along Highway 246 in an effort to handle an estimated daily increase of 3,200 vehicles traveling the road after expansion.

Since its 1994 opening, the casino has offered the Chumash tribe hopes for economic profit and self-sufficiency. Reservation unemployment has dropped by more than 70 percent, and the casino is now the largest employer in the Santa Ynez Valley. Currently, the Chumash casino contains 880 slot machines, although they are allowed an additional 1,120 by the state. However, these must be installed by May 15 or they will be placed back into a statewide pool available to other Indian casinos, hence, the tribe’s rush to finish construction by May and the county’s reticence to see this construction completed.

Historically, state and local government has opposed Indian gaming, and a number of statewide ballot measures have attempted to do away with or curtail the enterprise. The county’s plan to derail the Chumash expansion hinges on environmental concerns. The county claims that local agencies have identified important health and safety considerations – fire, traffic, air quality, wastewater and airport safety. These concerns were addressed in a letter to Gov. Gray Davis that calls on him to take action against the Chumash tribe for what county officials saw as a lack of “good faith effort” in analyzing or implementing measures or alternatives to mitigate significant off-reservation environmental impacts.

The exact nature of the county’s concerns were not outlined, nor were their grounds for claiming that the tribe did not act on “good faith” in assessing the casino’s environmental impact. This lack of clarity begs the question: Is the county hiding development restrictions behind the fa