Members of the Chumash tribe of the Santa Ynez Valley are currently seeking to acquire over 11,000 acres of non-reservation land, engaging Santa Barbara County officials in a land battle that may set an important legal precedent for land ownership in the state of California.
In addition to 1,400 acres of Santa Ynez Valley land already owned by the Chumash tribe, the Santa Ynez band of this Native American tribe has sought to attain over 11,000 acres of off-reservation land — 9,500 acres of which presently exist under private ownership. The tribe submitted a tribal land consolidation application to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, in hopes of reclaiming the land. While the BIA has responded by essentially ruling in favor of the Chumash tribe’s request, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors filed an appeal of the BIA decision in a 4-1 vote on September 11. County Supervisor Salud Carbajal was the sole source of opposition and the County is now looking to state and congressional representatives to reverse the BIA’s approval.
Without notifying the public, the Chumash Tribe submitted their application for the land — which included a request for a Tribal Consolidation and Acquisition Area Plan (TCA) spanning 11,500 acres that was approved by the BIA. The land in question covers part of the Santa Ynez Valley and includes the previously purchased Camp 4, a 1,400-acre plot of off-reservation land that Chumash officials hope to place in a federal trust through a Fee-to-Trust (FTT) application.
Placing the land into a trust would exempt the land from not only the tax base, but also state and local governmental regulation. Existing law allows FTT land to be used for housing, economic development, self-determination and land within a TCA. If granted, the Chumash trust would include more land than all of the off-reservation FTT acres in California that existed between 2001 and 2011 and there is no process for reversal once the trust is solidified.
The Chumash tribe’s Government Affairs and Legal Officer, Sam Cohen, explained that filing the TCA shows the tribe’s historical ties to the land. However, the TCA does not ensure that they will be granted an FTT for the area.
“Both Camp 4 and the current reservation are within the TCA, which documents the ties of the Chumash people to its land and represents an aspirational goal to restore the lands to the tribe,” Cohen said. “The tribe asserts historical territorial claims from Malibu to Atascadero. The TCA approval is merely the bureau recognizing the tribe’s ties to the history and College Rancho.”
Through approving the TCA, the BIA recognizes the tribe’s request to refer to all of the land included in the consolidation plan as “on-reservation” land, which facilitates the transition to FTT. Although the consolidated land is still not technically “on-reservation,” the Federal Government’s land acquisition policy 25 C.F.R. 151.3 (a) states that “tribal consolidation areas [are] to be both on-reservation and adjacent lands, with respect to acquisition for trust purposes.”
Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network, expressed concern over the permanence of consolidation, as the tribe would then exercise unlimited control over the land and its development.
“People are concerned because we are talking about a huge swatch of land covering large ranches and wineries transferring to a FTT,” Jordan said. She also said that the land would not necessarily be subject to state law or government control if put in the hands of the Chumash tribe. “Going through the trust, the state and government lose any regulatory control over the land. The tribe is not subject to the same rules as everyone else,” Jordan said.
The land consolidation has the potential to negatively affect the Santa Ynez community, according to Jordan, who said the “core issue” in this property dilemma is “land regulation.” She said such negative effects would stem from the lack of government regulation facing the land areas that could potentially be acquired by the Chumash tribe.
“These regulations are in place to protect the surrounding community,” Jordan said. “We all live by these rules, and as a part of this community, I think that the tribe should live by them, as well. My position has been that they’re entitled to as much land as they want, but they should be treated as any other developer.”
Cohen said adversaries to the Chumash request, such as Jordan, use fear mongering to raise funding against the Chumash efforts. “The opponents … are trying to use TCA to scare the neighbors, as part of a fundraising campaign to litigate against the Tribe,” Cohen said. While explaining that the Chumash tribe has attempted other negotiations with Santa Barbara County officials, Cohen stressed that the tribe’s primary goal, acquiring additional land, is to provide adequate housing for tribe members.
“We were hoping to achieve a cooperative agreement with the County,” Cohen said. “However, the county opted out of the land use agreement. The tribe’s sole priority is to house members of the tribe.”
Cohen also said the TCA is supported by court evidence documenting the historical connection between the tribe and College Rancho. He said that in a settlement filed “between 1897 and 1906 with the Roman Catholic Church,” the Church “deeded 99 acres of land to the state and forced the tribe to waive its rights to the College Rancho land.” Then, in 1987, the federal government traded 11,500 acres — encompassing College Rancho — for 99 acres and this 99-acre swatch of land is where the current tribal reservation is located.
However, the crucial point in this centuries-old land dispute is that, according to Cohen, “The Roman Catholic Church sued the federal government and each tribal member in 1897, filing a notice of ‘lis pendens’ on all of the land in the College Rancho.” With a notice of lis pendens, the Church left a legal cloud on the land title, as it basically filed legal suits against everyone who had interests in the land, including the tribal chairman’s great grandmother, Florencia Pina, Cohen said.
Cohen went on to argue that the real basis for opposition is not legal but personal, while again emphasizing that the tribe is only seeking to provide more housing for its members.
“There is a clear difference between a legal cloud on title and personal dislike against living near American Indians,” Cohen said. “The tribe was given a 99 acre reserve in a riverbed, a third of which is swamp land, a third of which contains steep slopes and a third of which was already built upon.” He said that with the Chumash including “137 members and their 1,300 children,” additional housing is a critical need for the tribe.
In the past, the federal government has established tribal consolidation areas to reassemble reservations that had been broken by the allotment acts of the 18th and 19th centuries. However, Jordan said that such consolidations were made because they involved Native American reservations that had been broken up and were not already whole. She said the Chumash are not facing such a situation, and thus should not receive this same treatment.
“The Chumash received land in its entirety, so they were not subject to this allotment process, [which was] in effect to make reservations whole,” Jordan said.
Jordan also said that this is the first time a TCA has been approved in the Pacific Region or in California, while expressing her disapproval of the BIA’s decision.
“Never has this been done before in California and it is completely inappropriate,” Jordan said. “If this is what the BIA calls their standard procedure, then they are in serious need of reform.”
According to a California Coastal Protection Network Memorandum, after receiving a letter from the Chumash tribe notifying the County about the application to the BIA for FTT of the 1,400 acres on August 7, the County realized the BIA had already approved the TCA on June 17, which encompassed the 1,400-acre Camp 4 property. After this realization, the County Board of Supervisors filed their appeal.
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