Reporting from Banning — Lloyd Fields wants to build a cluster of homes on his 41 acres of prime real estate along Interstate 10 and close to the outlet malls near Banning. Only he can't get to it.
The Morongo Band of Mission Indians has gated the only street leading to his plot of land — Fields Road, which Riverside County named after Fields' father back in 1959.
The tribe built the gate and guard shack five years ago to control access to its reservation, but Fields accuses the Morongos of placing the barrier on a public street and in a strategic spot to eclipse his land rights and pressure him into unloading his property to the tribe "in a fire sale."
Fields has filed a lawsuit against the city of Banning to force the municipality to bulldoze the guard shack, arguing that Fields Road is a public thoroughfare and that the tribe had no right to erect the blockade.
The legal entanglement creates a thorny problem for Banning, one of many Inland Empire cities hit hard by the recession. City revenue has plummeted by 30% over the last two years, making local officials even more sensitive to how critical the towering Morongo casino along the interstate is to the regional economy.
Fields accuses city leaders of being reluctant to defy a tribe with so much political and economic muscle and says any attempt to negotiate with the tribe, a sovereign nation with legal immunity, would prove to be equally fruitless.
"Banning is a subsidiary of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians. It's as simple as that," said Fields, who lives in Beverly Hills. "The tribe is all the city cares about."
A spokesman for the Morongo Indians declined to comment about the lawsuit.
"This is a legal issue that will be resolved between the city of Banning and Mr. Fields. The Tribe is not a party to the lawsuit and has not been served; therefore the Tribal Council has not had an opportunity to review the complaint," said Michael Fisher, spokesman for the tribe.
Fisher said that Fields "continues to be provided access through our reservation" to his property. "All he has to do is show identification, as all visitors are required to do."
However, Fields said the tribe refuses to grant access needed to develop his property.
Morongo Chief Administrative Officer G. Michael Milhiser, in an Aug. 30 letter to Banning's Planning Department, stated that Fields Road was a "tribal road." In the letter, Milhiser expressed the tribe's concerns about Fields' plans to build 146 homes on the property, including the effect the development would have on safety and the tribal lifestyle on the adjacent reservation land.
The land at issue is the last remaining slice of a much larger parcel Fields owned with a business partner north of Interstate 10, on the eastern edge of Banning. The other portion of that land was acquired by former Los Angeles Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, and eventually it was purchased by the Morongo Band of Mission Indians. Reservation and Morongo-owned land now surrounds Fields' 41-acre tract on all sides.
Banning City Atty. Dave Aleshire said the city considers the claims in the lawsuit to be "serious allegations" and is trying to determine whether Fields Road falls under the city's jurisdiction and, if so, what actions the city legally can take, he said.
"We understand the concern. The city wants to act prudently. We're looking into it. We don't act based on who has more power. We act on what is legal and appropriate," Aleshire said. "Typically, we do not just go out and bulldoze a property. We go to court and ask the court to verify that we have rights."
Aleshire acknowledged that the city does have a "public right-of-way" along Fields Road, but said the city does not maintain the street. City officials would need to do an official land survey to determine if the Morongo gate house was built on to that right-of-way, he said.
"I said to the public works director, 'Is this road in the public right of way? And he said, 'I don't know,'" Aleshire said.
Even if the city determines that Fields Road is, in fact, a public street and that the tribe's gate and guard shack were built illegally, the city may be powerless to do anything about it, he said. The Morongo tribe is a sovereign nation and only in rare circumstances would it be subject to a court order, he said.
According to the lawsuit, Riverside County deeded the west side of Fields Road to the city of Banning and the east side of the road to the Morongo Band of Mission Indians in 1986. Fields also has an easement that runs alongside the eastern portion of the road to his property.
The lawsuit alleges the tribe built the gate and guardhouse on top of the public portion of the roadway, and on top of Fields' easement.
"The tribe could have put the barrier up past Mr. Fields' property," said K. Erik Friess, Fields' attorney. "We're not trying to make the city pay a lot of money. We just want access to the property."