Town Hall meeting draws hundreds
By Jeremy Foster, Staff Writer September 1, 2011 Santa Ynez Valley Journal
It is a story that has prompted head-shaking among many Valley residents. It is also a stark reality that has property owners who live near the $250 million Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Riverside County in an uproar.
Lloyd Fields, a Banning city resident, wants to build residential property on his family’s 41-acre property just west of the casino. But the road (named after his father) leading to the land is blocked by the band’s guard shack. The Beverly Hills executive has become the face of a standoff that has spread across the state, bringing to the fore a continuing debate about Indian gaming and the tribal bands that have spun the activity in a lucrative industry – often to the chagrin of neighboring communities.
"Western Land Grab by Tribes" Mr. Fields, Mr. Uecker and Mr. French
“I am being denied the lawful due process to develop my property because the Morongo have declared in writing that they will not allow access to my property after it is developed,” Fields said outside the Riverside County Superior Courthouse in Riverside. “It’s time to expose this land-grabbing and end this blatant disregard by local officials who fail to give consideration of legitimate concerns of non-Indian property owners.”
For the 700 people who packed Solvang’s Veterans Memorial Hall on Aug. 19 for a meeting about the potential for expansion of Chumash gambling enterprises, Fields’ story, summarized in a short video clip, evoked a world in which leaders of wealthy tribes can impose their political clout to undermine the rights of property owners and communities.
Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up For California, described Fields’ troubles as a snapshot of what is transpiring throughout California.
“California is at the epicenter of this issue. We have 137 fee-to-trust acquisitions in process right now encompassing 15,000 acres of land,” she said. “San Diego County had 55 fee-to-land trust acquisitions in the last 10 years – cumulatively amounting to $5.5 million annually in lost tax revenue on just the land itself. And that’s not counting potential tax revenue lost from businesses that could have been developed.”
The meeting was sponsored by Santa Ynez Valley Concerned Citizens, Women’s Environmental Watch, Preservation of Los Olivos, and included speakers Donald C. Mitchell, an attorney and a scholar on Alaska Native legal status, John Rochefort, an attorney who represented POLO in their successful suit to obtain standing (or the right to participate in a legal action against the tribe) regarding the tribe’s effort to annex 6.9 acres in Santa Ynez, and Schmit.
The catalyst for the meeting is a desire by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians to place 1,390 acres at the northwest corner of highways 154/246 into trust. Earlier this year, the tribe announced the purchase of the agriculturally zoned parcel known as “Camp 4.” A similar attempt to annex the property occurred in 2005 for tribal housing with a possible golf course, a resort hotel and market-rate housing on the table. The proposed deal ultimately fell through after meeting fierce opposition from locals, including Bo Derek and Michael Jackson, because of concerns over traffic and an increase in crime.
Although the tribe now owns the property, it must secure the annexation through the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs or through federal legislation. Community groups following the issue closely say that though Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Camarillo, has promised that he wouldn’t introduce legislation without community support, his staff members have nonetheless been exploring the legislative options.
Neither Gallegly’s office nor tribe spokesman Frances Snyder responded to the Journal for a request for comment before press deadline.
Should the tribe subsume the property into the reservation, it would exempt the land from local and state taxes and out of local regulatory control – giving the tribe a great deal of latitude to potentially expand their gaming. The tribe has reportedly dismissed ambitions to build a Nevada-style casino, but critics note that once they lock the land into reservation territory, it can change its plans.
“Make no mistake about it. We’re talking about a business venture and its desire to grow and expand in our community – no different than someone putting an oil refinery in your backyard,” moderator and Santa Ynez Valley resident Fred Steck told the audience. “One can only assume that gaming expansion is the ultimate goal. Regardless of how you feel about gaming, removing this land from the normal oversight of the county and its citizens should raise deep concerns.”
“Elected officials appeared to have turned a blind eye,” he added. He then called upon elected officials to raise their hands if they were in attendance. Solvang Mayor Jim Richardson and a handful of the city’s council members raised their hands. A representative from the 3rd District office attended, as well as an attorney with the county counsel’s office who handles tribal gaming. Supervisor Doreen Farr said she had scheduled a trip a few months earlier and that she would be briefed by her staff on the community gathering.
Donald Mitchell told the audience that in the 1980s he served as vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives. He told how he became a critic of the Native sovereignty movement while representing the state senate against two lawsuits by Alaskan tribes over tribal sovereignty issues. He also testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs challenging the premise that the Indian Reorganization Act, enacted by Congress in 1934, delegated virtually unlimited authority to the Secretary of the Interior to create regulatory mechanisms such as fee to trust. He said Indian gaming has mushroomed over the last three decades into a “$29 billion a year business that operates not only down the road from this meeting, but also in 29 states without public conversation or a national vote.”
“The first wave was sort of what happened to you in the Valley – groups that have the status of being Indian tribes first opened up bingo parlors and card rooms, and later as they got more sophisticated, developed full-blown casinos on their existing reservations,” he added. “Some of those folks were really lucky because, serendipitously, they had a reservation like the one down the road from you, or like the Agua Caliente Casino in downtown Palm Springs that were physically very close to a large group of non-Indian customers.”
Mitchell said other tribes find land outside of the reservation and, “through the magic of the Bureau of Indian Affairs waving the wand, they managed to transform that land into an Indian reservation.” And tribal efforts to annex land near non-Indian customers are invariably about making oodles of money, he contended.
He noted an early case of land-for-lucre when, in 1979, the Seminole tribe brought land into trust ostensibly to build a museum honoring the tribe’s history and culture, only to turn around and develop a high-stakes bingo parlor that violated many of the state laws.
“I’m not suggesting that’s how it ends up for you,” he said. “In fact, because there are no standards, the decision to take this land into trust down the road is political and that means there’s a political solution.” All speakers touched on Proposition 1A, also known as the Gambling on Tribal Lands Amendment, the 2000 state-sponsored ballot initiative that authorized the governor to negotiate compacts with Indian tribes to allow certain forms of gambling (most notable, slot machine gambling) on reservation lands. But none expressed much hope over the success of a potential counter-initiative.
But they did reference a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as the Carcieri decision that has restricted the ability of the U.S. Department of the Interior to take land into federal trust for tribes recognized after 1934 – a decision that has stalled some pending land-into-trust applications.
The overarching message to Valley residents was ensuring each individual has a voice in his or her political destiny.
“Frankly, they’re succeeding in the political arena,” said Rochefort. “They have interested a congressman who is perhaps sponsoring a bill before Congress to declare the 1,400 acres trust land for the Indians, bypassing the BIA altogether, obviating the necessity for BIA to decide our case and the fate of the Santa Ynez Band.” But Rochefort pointed to POLO’s success in court to obtain standing to challenge the Bureau of Indian Affairs decision in the Interior Board of Indian Appeals over the tribe’s efforts to enlarge the Chumash reservation by removing 6.9-acres of Santa Ynez property from county tax rolls.
“For the residents of the Santa Ynez Valley, this case is about gaining a voice in the federal process that places local property beyond the reach of local regulation, places the community at significant health and safety risks, and permits the further transformation of their community to serve the gambling interests in their midst,” he said. “We have them right where we want them. We have them in the political arena, where every person’s voice matters.”