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Race to Beat Slot Deadline Frustrates County Officials

California and the West

Gambling: Santa Ynez project in rural valley illustrates local governments' lack of authority over reservation construction.

February 18, 2001|SALLY ANN CONNELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA YNEZ, Calif. — The repercussions of a state gambling agreement are echoing off the hills of this oak-speckled valley of horse farms and vineyards as yet another Indian casino rushes a building project to avoid losing its right to operate lucrative new slot machines.

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Mission Indians has angered Santa Barbara County officials by putting up walls for a 21,000-square-foot temporary building and planning a five-story parking garage in a rural area where nothing else approaches that size.

"This is just totally out of context in a rural valley of 20,000 people," said Supervisor Gail Marshall. "We have never even seen plans for the parking garage or the 209,000-square-foot building they are planning to construct" within two years to replace the current hodgepodge of casino buildings.

Santa Barbara County leaders are not alone in feeling frustrated. From San Diego in the south to Del Norte in the north, county officials are seeing a construction boom on federally protected reservation lands that are largely exempt from county building regulations.

In places like Santa Ynez, the pace has been quickened by a looming state deadline for installing slot machines.

Negotiated by Gov. Gray Davis in 1999 and approved by voters in Proposition 1A, state gaming compacts set a May 15 deadline for when tribes must have as many as 2,000 Las Vegas-style slots operational or risk losing licenses for the slots to other tribes.

Although the intended goal of the deadline was to set a limit to the number of slot machines in the state, it has resulted in a building frenzy. There are 60 gaming tribes in California, and only the biggest casinos have been able to avoid new construction for added slot machines.

"Tribes have been participating in the draw for licenses before they even have any place to put the slot machines," said Cheryl Schmit, co-director of the gambling watchdog group Stand Up For California. "Then they have to scramble to get them in and working."

The Chumash have 875 slot machines operational now in a casino that also features bingo and card games, but the tribe wants to add 1,125 for the maximum of 2,000 by May 15. Slot machines account for an estimated 80% to 85% of the profits at Indian casinos, and each machine is expected to bring in revenue of $200 to $500 daily, studies of out-of-state Indian casinos have shown.

Although work on the Chumash's temporary building is still underway, tribe officials are confident that it will be finished by the May 15 deadline.

"Our licenses are safe," said Vincent Armenta, chairman of the business committee for the 162 members of the Chumash tribe.

Although the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors unanimously opposes the new construction, Armenta said the Chumash have done all that is required to address environmental concerns. He cited the reservation's status as a "sovereign nation" when it comes to specific planning questions.

"I don't want to say anything harmful," Armenta said in a recent interview at the casino, which is just two miles east of the Danish-style tourist village of Solvang. "But years ago, when we didn't have running water and sewers at the reservation, nobody in the local government really was too concerned about us."

What annoys many of the tribe's neighbors is the project's piecemeal nature.

Santa Barbara officials have joined elected leaders from other counties in asking the governor, the attorney general and the California Gambling Control Commission, to stop or slow casino projects. So far, help has not been forthcoming.

"In my district alone, I have five tribes going into gaming," said Bill Horn, head of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and representative of the northern end of the county. In all, the county has 11 tribes either adding onto or building new casinos to meet the slot machine deadline.

"Many times when we comment on their plans, we don't even get a response back," Horn said. The county's only recourse is applying environmental rules to those parts of the project, such as driveways and water hookups, where the tribes are encroaching on county property.

The gaming compacts do require tribes to make "a good-faith effort" to address state and national environmental requirements.

"What happens if there is no good-faith effort?" asked Rene Stwora-Hail, who has served as acting chief counsel for just a month at the newly formed gambling commission. "The bottom line is: We wish it was better defined."

It is the artificial nature of the May 15 deadline that is rushing many of the building projects, but Stwora-Hail said the commission has no intention yet of trying to reset the deadline. She acknowledges that the panel may not even have the authority to do so.

"In a perfect world, there would be an open dialogue between the tribes and the local governments," said Hilary McLean , a spokeswoman for Davis. "However, the compact does provide some recourse in case that does not work out."

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