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Plan's Death Doesn't Kill Land Debate

Fess Parker's proposal to ally with Chumash to develop property fizzles, but it puts a spotlight on tensions between tribes and rural neighbors.

October 02, 2005|Glenn F. Bunting | Times Staff Writer

SANTA YNEZ, Calif. — Amid rancorous debate over tribal development rights, Chumash Indians and former actor Fess Parker have abandoned plans to build a resort hotel and luxury homes on 745 acres of rolling ranchland here.

The project -- the first of its kind proposed by a California tribe -- collapsed after Chumash leaders and Parker failed to agree on key details, including the size of the hotel and the value of the land.

Wealthy residents in this rural Santa Barbara County township have fought to prevent the Chumash and Parker from developing the property under Indian sovereignty laws, which would trump local land-use restrictions. During the last 18 months, community activists have raised more than $500,000, collected thousands of protest signatures and boycotted Parker's businesses.

"There is a huge sigh of relief," said Carol Herrera, president of Women's Environmental Watch of Santa Ynez. "This would have changed our community overnight."

But the battle is far from over.

Efforts by the Chumash and other affluent tribes to expand their reservations under a Depression-era law intended to compensate impoverished Native Americans for the loss of tribal lands are being closely watched across the nation.

In one case in August, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger joined the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors in opposing a bid by the Chumash to convert 5.7 acres to "Indian country" status. The governor's office warned that federal approval of the annexation could affect more than 75 million acres of territory claimed by California tribes.

Lands placed into federal trust by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs are no longer subject to the authority of state and local governments to levy taxes, enforce zoning laws or impose environmental restrictions.

The BIA oversees more than 54 million acres owned by Indian tribes and individuals. During the last five years, the agency has placed more than 11,000 acres into trust on behalf of at least 31 tribes in California. The state is home to 107 federally recognized tribes.

The Chumash, formally the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians, operate one of the most profitable gambling enterprises in the state. A new Mediterranean-style casino resort features 2,000 slot machines, a 106-room luxury hotel, a concert hall and two parking structures. Casino revenues exceed $200 million a year, and each of the tribe's 154 members receives about $350,000 annually.

In recent years, the Chumash have applied to annex 22 parcels totaling about 25 acres. Much of the land borders Highway 246, long the dividing line between the reservation and downtown Santa Ynez.

Tribal leaders expect the BIA to approve the annexation of the 5.7-acre plot. They also are moving ahead with plans for a museum, cultural center and shops on an adjacent 6.9-acre site.

The annexations created little controversy in the bucolic Santa Ynez Valley before the Chumash unveiled plans in March of last year to build as many as 500 luxury homes, a resort hotel, two championship golf courses and an equestrian center on Parker's ranchland.

Chumash leaders said the project would enable the tribe to diversify its financial investments beyond gambling and to alleviate a housing shortage by providing about 150 new reservation homes for members and their descendants.

Parker paid $6 million for 1,428 acres in the heart of the valley in 1998 but was stymied by zoning laws that allowed no more than five housing sites. To sidestep county and state land-use regulations, he approached the Chumash with the idea of placing the property in federal trust.

Members of the Chumash tribe voted overwhelmingly to form a partnership with Parker and pay $12 million to jointly develop 745 acres on the property. Tribal leaders counted on the lanky Texan's legendary fame and his business acumen to win over longtime adversaries in Santa Ynez.

"I wanted, in a way, to be their ombudsman," said Parker, who became famous 50 years ago playing frontiersmen Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.

But county supervisors, civic leaders, fellow celebrities and even close friends and neighbors chastised Parker for betraying the community's commitment to the preservation of open space.

Some residents refused to patronize Parker's bed-and-breakfast in Los Olivos and restaurants that served wines from his award-winning vineyard. Stop signs in the area were plastered with green "FESS" stickers.

A full-page newspaper ad by songwriter Bernie Taupin, a Santa Ynez resident, vowed to "snap at Mr. Parker's lanky heels till his skin is raw."

"The Parker project was a big wake-up call," said Nancy Eklund, who moved here 25 years ago and operates a 10-acre horse farm. "The ability [of the Chumash] to engage in unrestrained development that is completely inconsistent with the quality and character of this community was scary. Most people moved here to specifically get away from that."

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