If you’re familiar at all with the Santa Ynez Valley, you know it’s famous for its rolling hills and farmland bordered by country roads and twisted-trunked oak trees.
Nestled between these ranches and hills is the reservation of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, the only federally-recognized tribe of the Chumash people who once called lands from as far north as Monterey down to Malibu their home. That’s around 300 miles of coastline.
Now, their land is down to a crowded 100 acres--less than 1/4 square mile of total land.
“We have nowhere else to build,” said Tribal Chairman Kenneth Kahn. Kahn was elected to the position in April. He says with about a quarter of the enrolled tribal members actually living on the reservation, 100 acres just simply isn’t enough for them.
“[We have] 100 homes, 300 residents,” Kahn said. “That leaves us with about an acre-and-a-half left of buildable land.”
Kahn said the houses aren’t built on ideal land, either. There’s a creek that runs through the reservation that often causes damage to the property and most of the houses are aging.
Over the past twenty years, the tribe has tried to expand the reservation to sustain the amount of residents. After several attempts of expanding over the years, they’ve faced opposition from local, non-tribal members.
But in 2010, the tribe purchased about 1,400 acres--known as Camp 4--from the late actor Fess Parker. The Camp 4 land is about a five-minute drive from the current reservation.
For the most part the land is a plowed, open field with neighboring ranch property. Further down the field, there’s a vineyard, where the tribe produces the only completely Native-produced wine in the country.
“Our plan is to build 143 homes,” Kahn said.
After the tribe purchased the land, they needed a series of federal approvals before the new property is designated as part of the existing reservation, in order to build any additional housing.
The tribe chose to go the legislative route, through a series of congressional bills--the most recent being HR 1157.
The bill itself wasn't sponsored by U.S. Rep. Lois Capps, the out-going representative from the 24th District, which encompasses the reservation. It was sponsored by another congressman, Doug LaMalfa of California’s 1st District, in the northeastern part of the state.
The federal route the tribe is taking is one of the main concerns of another person in the Santa Ynez Valley, Mike Brady.
“If the federal government allows the tribe to annex Camp 4 into the reservation, they can basically do what they want and when they want in terms of development of that property,” Brady said.
Brady is a real estate broker in the neighboring town of Los Olivos. He’s lived in the Santa Ynez Valley for over 40 years.
He says that the surrounding community should have input into what and where the tribe wants to build. And he says many people in the Valley agree. He formed a group, the Santa Ynez Valley Coalition, to oppose what he says is federal intervention into local land use.
“I see [the Coalition] concerned about the quality of what we have, here in the Santa Ynez Valley, being diminished and the uncertainty of what the the tribe could do,” Brady said. “We're not opposed to tribal housing.”
Brady said this uncertainty is affecting his real estate business.
“I've had people specifically back out of transactions because when I've told them as a matter of disclosure that this is going on,” Brady said. “They come back and say, ‘You know what? I don't know what's going to happen, and I'm not interested in the Santa Ynez Valley anymore.’”
Literature from the Santa Ynez Valley Coalition says making Camp 4 part of the reservation would exempt the land from tax codes and environmental restrictions.
Even though they aren’t legally obliged to do so, the tribe has tried to cooperate with Santa Barbara County through an ad hoc subcommittee specifically formed to address the Camp 4 controversy.
Chairman Kahn says the tribe is doing this so that they can reach some sort of compromise and strengthen relations with the local communities. They’ve negotiated to do several things, like agreeing not to build any gambling facilities . Another agreement has the tribe establishing a 100-year plan for the property.
“But right now we're taking it ten and 20 years at a time,” Kahn said.
Tribal representatives came up with several different proposals on how to shape the property. Some of the plans have more development. Others have more open land. But Kahn says the county asking that they plan out 100 years of possible developments is frivolous.
“It's a little much to ask for,” Kahn said. “But you know, the tribe is doing the best that we can to work with the community.”
The Santa Ynez Valley Coalition says these different plans are seeking to build large commercial, high-density housing and even industrial developments. But Kahn says the only solid development plans they have to build on Camp 4 is 143 new homes, each on one-acre plots.
Earlier in December, the land transfer act introduced in Congress this session was dropped due to inaction. That’s what happened during the last legislative session, too, with HR 3313. Brady and the Coalition see this as a victory. Chairman Kahn says he and the tribe will continue to pursue the federal route to expand the reservation.
But for now, Camp 4 sits there quietly, as it has been since the tribe purchased it six years ago. The fields are still plowed and the oak trees still stand alone.
And the current reservation land sits just minutes down the road, still crowded.