The assistant secretary of Indian Affairs has reversed her decision to take the Camp 4 property into federal trust for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians after additional endangered species were discovered either on or near the property.
In a notice dated March 29 sent to 10 individuals and groups that appealed the fee-to-trust decision, Tara Sweeney said she had no choice but to reverse her decision to give the Bureau of Indian Affairs time to evaluate the impact the action would have on the organisms.
The two species are both birds — the California condor and the willow flycatcher.
“The winner in the latest decision is the environment,” said Brian Kramer, one of those who appealed the fee-to-trust decision.
Kenneth Kahn, tribal chairman for the Chumash, said the tribe has a cultural heritage of environmental stewardship, even as it works to restore its tribal lands.
“Our tribe is committed to ensuring that all environmental impacts, including consideration of the two new species added to the endangered species list after the 2014 notice of decision, are fully surveyed according to the BIA’s policies,” Kahn said.
“As the original stewards of this land, protecting the environment is a way of life for our tribe,” he continued. “We will continue to do so as we fight to protect and restore our historic Chumash homeland. Our pursuit for tribal housing on Camp 4 is vital to preserving the tribe’s customs and traditions.”
Supervisor Joan Hartmann, whose 3rd District includes the Chumash Reservation and Camp 4, said reversing the decision was a wise move.
“As a former attorney at the EPA and a director at the Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project, I take any risks to endangered species quite seriously,” Hartmann said.
“The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ withdrawal of the decision to put the land into trust is indeed a prudent course, as it will grant the bureau time to conduct environmental surveys prior to making any further decisions regarding the property,” she said.
“I will continue to monitor the agency’s actions and the biological reports that the federal government releases,” Hartmann added.
Although Santa Barbara County pledged to drop opposition to the fee-to-trust action in a memorandum of agreement with the Chumash, the county was listed as an appellant in the notice from Sweeney.
Jefferson Litten, chief of staff for Hartmann, said they believe that is a remnant from the appeal filed prior to signing the memorandum.
A spokesman for the Santa Ynez Valley Coalition, which also appealed the trust decision on Camp 4, said the organization planned to respond to the latest decision.
Camp 4 seesaw
The issue extends back to December 2014 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs Pacific Region director issued a notice of decision to take the Camp 4 property into trust, which would pave the way for the Chumash tribe to develop tribal housing and a tribal center on the site.
In January 2017, the principal deputy assistant secretary affirmed that decision.
Then on Feb. 13 this year, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California vacated that decision and sent the consolidated appeals back to the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs for review and a final decision.
Sweeney said, based on the record of the appeals, she reaffirmed the decision to take the Camp 4 property into trust, which vacated the appeals.
But when the Bureau of Indian Affairs Pacific Region director began the process of taking the land into trust, he found additional endangered or threatened species had been discovered in the geographic region of the property since 2014, Sweeney said in her notice to the appellants.
As a result, she said, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has to evaluate whether the species might be affected by taking the land into trust.
Sweeney said the federal government on March 13 asked the district court to stay the case to give the Bureau of Indian Affairs time to “investigate this matter and determine what is necessary to bring it to a close.”
In the meantime, she said, the bureau would not reaccept title to the property.
However, Sweeney said the court did not respond, so the federal government had to answer the plaintiff’s amended complaint by April 2.
“This limited time frame does not afford the BIA the time needed to properly investigate these matters,” Sweeney said in the notice.
“Given these circumstances, I have determined that the most prudent course of action is to withdraw my Feb. 25, 2019, decision and vacate the regional director’s Dec. 24, 2014, notice of decision in order to remand the matter to allow the BIA to complete its review before issuance of a final decision … ,” she said.
The trust issue
The Chumash tribe purchased the 1,400-acre tract on the east side of Highway 154 in Santa Ynez from the Fess Parker estate for a reported $42 million in 2010 to build tribal housing and a tribal center.
Kahn has said only 17% of tribe members and lineal descendants live on the Santa Ynez reservation, where additional housing can’t be built because of geographic and other constraints.
Because the Camp 4 land is zoned for agriculture, using the site for housing and a tribal center would be difficult because of state laws and Santa Barbara County zoning regulations.
So the tribe asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take the land into trust, which would effectively make it part of the Chumash Reservation and remove it from state and county jurisdiction.
It would also result in a loss of tax revenue for the county, which would still have to provide certain services but would have no authority over how the property was developed.
As a result, the county and tribe came to an agreement that would address most of those issues.
But organizations and individuals in the community objected to the land being taken into trust, fearing development would be inconsistent with the Santa Ynez Valley Community Plan guidelines and an eyesore on scenic Highway 154.
They also believed the Chumash could build another casino on the site and would further deplete groundwater.
Eventually, members of the Santa Ynez Valley Concerned Citizens, No More Slots, the Santa Ynez Valley Alliance and the former Women’s Environmental Watch, which subsequently became WE Watch, joined forces as the Santa Ynez Valley Coalition.
Coalition members have consistently said they don’t oppose the Chumash tribe’s desire to build more housing, but they oppose any development that doesn’t conform to the community plan designed to protect the local environment and quality of life.
In addition to the coalition, appeals over the fee-to-trust decision were filed by Camp 4 neighbors Brian and Suzanne Kramer, Anne Crawford-Hall, Lewis P. Geyser and Robert B. Corlett and an organization called Preservation of Los Olivos.