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Tribe at Odds With Neighbors Over Casino

Chumash Indians will open an 11-acre gaming and hotel site in a largely rural region. Critics see traffic problems.

May 18, 2003|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

SANTA YNEZ — The chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians had a tone of pride in his voice last week as he strode through his new super-sized Chumash Casino, rapidly rising amid the pastures and rolling hills of the serene Santa Ynez Valley.

"I think it looks pretty good myself," Vincent Armenta said. "A couple of people may never stop criticizing this. But the vast majority realizes that this is going to be a classy place that just adds to the beauty around here."

The 200,000-square-foot casino, twice the size of the tribe's existing gambling complex, will have cascading fountains, a large chandelier and three restaurants.

None of it has appeased the most outspoken critics of the project, however. This was only partly a debate about aesthetics. It has been more about money and the obligations of an Indian tribe with sovereign-nation status to its surrounding community.

C.J. Jackson, a local resort operator and leader of a group called Concerned Citizens, said the key issues remain the tribe's obligations to its neighbors and the overwhelming size of the expanded 11-acre casino and hotel area in a largely rural region.

"Nobody else would ever have gotten away with building something this huge right at the edge of Highway 246," he said. "There are all kinds of road and traffic problems this creates. They have put a lot of gingerbread on it. But when you look at it, you are still looking at a 200,000-square-foot box."

With negotiations underway between the state and the 61 California tribes with gambling operations over new compacts, Jackson has been leading a local campaign to pressure Gov. Gray Davis to place serious emphasis on Chumash obligations to pay more of the local mitigation costs of the new casino.

But his frustration showed in his comments about Armenta's response to local critics. "I think they have written us off," he said.

Though the Chumash have political support, they remain at odds with the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. The sovereignty issue is at the heart of the dispute, mainly because it's a murky area of the law.

Leading experts on Indian law say the general rule is that tribes are subject to federal law but not state law.

As far as Santa Barbara County goes, the current Chumash compact emphasizes the need for cooperation with local communities on environmental issues. But there are no legal obligations.

"We are still advocating that the governor bring our tribe to the negotiating table," said Supervisor Gail Marshall, whose district includes the Santa Ynez Valley.

"They have ignored us on a lot of important issues, and it may be quite simply that the tribe doesn't understand how to run a government.

"I have heard they are not viewed favorably in Sacramento, that they are seen as one of the scofflaw tribes that hasn't taken a truly serious attempt to be a good neighbor," Marshall said.

Armenta's view is the opposite.

"Actually, I'm hearing that people in Sacramento are using us as an example of how to get along with local communities," he said.

Marshall's suspicions about a lack of interest by the tribe in renegotiating its agreement may be right, however. The tribe has said it has no interest in gaining rights to more than the 2,000 slot machines it already has, which is one bargaining incentive the state could offer.

"We will definitely meet with the state at some point to hear what they have to say," said Frances Snyder, tribal spokeswoman.

"But it's quite possible we will be content to stay with the agreement we already have. We have made it clear there is no price tag on our sovereignty."

Meanwhile, highway crews last week were finishing a $1-million road expansion and the placement of two new stoplights along Highway 246, paid for by the tribe.

The casino probably will be completed by August, when the tribe's current casino will be demolished for a new 105-room hotel and parking lot.

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