Vincent Armenta, left, is tribal chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
SANTA YNEZ, Calif. — The Chumash Indians, first seen by explorers along the California coast in the fall of 1542, did not have running water on their tiny, sickle-shaped reservation until the 1960s.
Over time, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians clawed its way to sustainability, and more. The tribe harnessed Depression-era laws of self-governance, state and federal gambling initiatives. A casino opened in 2003. Healthcare is paid for. The tribe foots the bill for any recognized descendant who wants to go to college.
"We are a poster child for tribes across the state and country," said tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta. "You would think that people would be jumping up and down and saying: 'Look at what those fine Indians did.'"
Instead, the tribe's expansion plans have sparked a bitter dispute over the future of the Santa Ynez Valley and whether the biggest threat to the area's eccentric charm and velvet countryside could be its earliest inhabitants.
The dispute revolves around a thicket of arcane land-use rules. But in the end, it is about trust — at this point, there isn't any, not between tribal leaders and a vociferous group of activists determined to stop them.
The tribe insists its plans are modest: Bursting at the seams on its 37-acre reservation, tribal leaders bought a chunk of nearby land and hope to build 143 homes there for members and descendants, at a lower density than some nearby developments. "Very tasteful," Armenta said. "Very controlled."
But the tribe is attempting to assert a special jurisdiction over the land that would exclude the property and the development from many local rules and regulations and free it from property taxes.
As a result, community activists portray the proposal as menacing to the Santa Ynez Valley — with far-reaching consequences. They argue that the tribe could pull a bait and switch, promising modest homes but instead building a second casino or a massive resort, even some sort of industrial operation in the midst of horse farms and vineyards.
The critics say the very character of the state is at stake, that if the tribe wins the day, it could pave the way for land grabs by many of the state's 100-plus Native American bands. "This is a wave that could roll throughout California," said Susan Jordan, director of the nonprofit California Coastal Protection Network in Santa Barbara.
The tribe, they argue, is abusing laws and rules that were written to lift Native Americans out of poverty.
"They are a business," said Frederick Steck, a private equity investor who lives near the land the tribe wants to develop. "Pay your taxes. Be a citizen of the country.... Join the party. We're happy to have you."
If the tribe is able to remove land that it buys from the tax rolls and avoid development regulations, Steck said, "Then we should give this country back completely. And say we're sorry."
Back at the tribal headquarters, Armenta fell silent for a moment when asked about such attitudes. "If we were poor Indians," he said, "would that make it better? Because we're rich Indians we can't do it? Is there something wrong with us being successful in business?"
Of the opposition, he said: "This is not about money. This is not about building houses."
So what's it about? To that, Armenta said nothing. He merely pulled up his sleeve to reveal the one thing that community activists insist is not at issue: His darker skin tone.
The conflict began, oddly enough, with the man who portrayed Davy Crockett: The late Fess Parker.
In 2004, the actor was no longer wearing a coonskin cap on TV. By then, he was an influential winemaker and real estate developer, and he teamed up with the tribe to announce plans for an ambitious development. Parker envisioned golf courses and hundreds of fancy homes, on land he owned — while invoking the tribe's legal ability to avoid some local and state regulation.
The project was widely viewed as out of character with a valley that guards its way of life zealously. It didn't happen, but in 2010, weeks before Parker's death, the tribe bought the same pastoral 1,400-acre tract from him for a reported $40 million.
Known as Camp 4 and still striped in parts with Parker's grapevines, the land was near two of the region's busiest thoroughfares, and roughly two miles from the tribe's reservation.
The tribe's wealth has already shaped the Santa Ynez Valley beyond its most evident asset, the shimmering Chumash casino. The tribe has built gas stations and bought office buildings, day spas and restaurants, in Santa Ynez, Solvang and Buellton — on land not part of its reservation.
Robert F. Field, an activist opposed to the Camp 4 development, said the tribe went through the usual approval process for those projects.
"When they have come into the community and played by the rules that apply to the rest of us, they've been terrific," Field said.
Things are different this time, the activists contend.