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Ex-Actor, Chumash Plan Community

With Fess Parker, tribe wants to build a complex near Santa Ynez -- one exempt from local laws.

March 16, 2004|Glenn F. Bunting | Times Staff Writer

SANTA YNEZ — Chumash Indians are planning to build as many as 500 luxury homes, a hotel resort, two championship golf courses and an equestrian center in a joint venture with Fess Parker, the former actor who once played Davy Crockett.

In the first project of its kind by a California tribe, the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians will seek to convert the property to "Indian country" status, which would prevent state and local planners from exerting any authority over the development.

Members of the tribe voted 72 to 37 this month to approve paying Parker $12 million for approximately 745 acres of rolling farmland about two miles from their reservation, according to sources familiar with the deal.

Under the tentative agreement, scheduled to be announced at a news conference this morning, the Chumash tribe would own 51% of the partnership and Fesspar LLC, a Parker company, would retain 49%, along with primary control over planning and development. The cost of the project is estimated at about $250 million, the sources said.

The chairman of the Chumash, Vincent Armenta, confirmed in an interview that his tribe intended to petition the U.S. Department of Interior to place the land into federal trust. If the petition is approved, the state and county will lose the power to levy taxes, regulate land use, impose environmental restrictions and address effects on traffic, air quality, public safety and schools. All of those matters would be left to the Chumash to determine under the rule of tribal sovereignty.

The scale of the project far exceeds any real estate development in the Santa Ynez community, a rural village about a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles that is dotted with vineyards and livestock ranches and small inns and shops that cater to tourists. The $150-million Chumash Casino, which opened in September, is the largest local employer, and the tribe plans to open an adjacent 106-room hotel in June.

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Gail Marshall said she expected the proposed project to generate "no shortage of rancor" among people in the Santa Ynez Valley. Marshall and many of her constituents have criticized Chumash leaders for failing to divulge plans for their casino in advance.

Armenta said the tribe had decided to disclose its newest development early in the process, giving county officials and residents plenty of time to respond. He promised to consult county elected officials and planners.

"I'm not saying that anything the county wants, they're going to get," Armenta said. "I'm saying we're going to listen to them. Do we need county approval on the project? No. But we certainly want it."

Curtis Moniot, an architectural designer and Santa Ynez Valley resident, said the community was troubled by the tribe's efforts to circumvent regional and county planning laws by asserting its sovereign status.

"You have an entity able to usurp county government, Caltrans, the state water resources board and just basically everybody," Moniot said. "The voters gave the tribe a monopoly on gambling, but in effect that is being parlayed into a monopoly on development rights."

Chumash leaders are following the lead of other California tribes that are using casino proceeds to expand their investments as the political climate and public attitude toward Indian gaming changes.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is demanding that the 54 gaming tribes in California "pay their fair share" of an estimated $5 billion in annual revenues to the cash-strapped state treasury. Also, card rooms and racetracks are pushing an initiative for the November ballot that would threaten the tribes' exclusive rights to gambling.

"This is an opportunity as a business to expand and diversify," Armenta said of the partnership with Parker. "We need to look at things other than gaming that will benefit our tribe and ensure a healthy financial future for our people."

Equally important, Armenta said, the project would alleviate a critical housing shortage on the small Chumash reservation. Tentative plans include setting aside 150 homes for tribal members.

The project would be in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley at the intersection of highways 154 and 246. Parker paid $6 million for 1,428 acres in 1998, and since then Santa Barbara County officials have resisted his efforts to develop the land, he said. In November, Parker listed the ranch for $28 million.

About the same time, Parker said, he approached Armenta about developing half the property with the Chumash.

"It just happens that our needs dovetail," said Parker, who starred in the 1954 TV hit "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter."

He added, "If we implement our plans, we'd like to do what we can to preserve the beauty of the area. We're not out to destroy anything."

The parties hope to close escrow by June. While stressing that no formal agreements have been signed and the details are preliminary, Armenta said he is optimistic that construction could be underway within four years.

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