Is it their turn?


From the Publisher/Arnold G. York

Malibu worst nightmare is being played out in Santa Barbara County today as that county’s Davy Crockett, retired actor Fess Parker, and the local Chumash Indian tribe are disclosing their big plans for the Santa Ynez area. According to press reports, the Chumash tribe and Parker, who is a developer, and hotel and winery owner, are planning a joint venture to build a hotel resort, two championship golf courses, 500 luxury homes and an equestrian center in that notoriously antidevelopment area, and they don’t appear to be overly apprehensive about the community’s sensitivities. The possible reason for their level of comfort is that the Chumash intend to buy from Parker, for about $12 million, 745 acres of farmland about two miles from their reservation and then convert that land into “Indian country.” Once the U.S. Department of the Interior grants that status, it is put beyond the regulatory reach of the state of California and the county of Santa Barbara, or any municipality if there happens to be one involved. That means, for all practical purposes, that neither the state nor the county will have any power to regulate the land use or land density, levy taxes, enforce any environmental laws, or even force them to deal with traffic impacts, policing, schools, fire protection and air quality. Even the federal and state courts have little reach onto Indian lands because the tribes are considered by treaties (some of which go back several hundred years) and statute to be, in the main, sovereign nations, although there are obviously legal challenges to this currently going on. As sovereign nations, they legally have a right to govern themselves and their lands. That covers land that was not recently Indian land, but was later converted to that status.

There are also some monumental battles within some of the tribes as to who is and who isn’t an Indian and a tribe member. And who gets to decide. Typically, many of the tribes are small and the amount of money involved is mammoth. For example, the Chumash tribe that decided on this recent deal with Parker is the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians, which has only 156 members. The vote to approve the $250 million deal was 72 to 37. Recently, there have been stories in the press about some other tribes trying to expel some of their members and the litigation that ensued.

Other tribes have built casinos with little local input and sometimes contributed little to offset local costs or environmental impacts. However, that is not always the case. The record is mixed. Some counties and tribes have worked harmoniously together, and the tribes have contributed to the local economies. In others, it’s been open warfare from the get-go.

Indian gambling in California is currently about a $5 billion per year business. The state gets almost nothing from that revenue stream other than what is received from the Indian compacts previously negotiated. A knowledgeable legislator told me that California is well on its way to being the biggest gambling state in the union. He expects it is only a matter of time before we pass Nevada. Las Vegas is still hot as a gambling area, but Reno in Northern Nevada has already been feeling the effects of California Indian gambling as they watched a precipitous drop-off in their gambling receipts.

If any of you have been in an Indian casino lately, you begin to notice that they look more and more like Vegas casinos, which is not surprising since a number of Vegas operators are running the casinos.

So, after seeing the story on the Santa Ynez development in today’s L.A. Times, I called David Reznick of the Malibu Bay Co. to find out if there had been any discussion with the local Chumash. After all, Malibu is historically where the Chumash have lived for several centuries, and there are government warehouses filled with artifacts to document the Chumash claims to some early possessions of this area. As might be expected, Reznick said, ” We don’t comment about any future plans for any of our properties.”

For further information on Chumash history go to the city of Malibu Web site,, then to the index “About Malibu” and then to “History.”

But I do know a number of very big developers have been approached about projects in various places in California. Almost all have gone from a simple casino to an entire planned community with hotels, golf courses and convention facilities.

There is also a battle going on in that many of the tribes want to get their casinos into the urban areas where people are. Some of the cities, hard-pinched for cash, are talking about doing deals with the tribes.

Not to be left out of the deal, many of the existing card clubs now have an initiative coming up on the November 2004 ballot to give them the same casino rights as the Indian tribes, which now have a monopoly. And some cities are also behind it because if it passes, they will have a legal right to some of the revenues and will be able to exercise some degree of control because card clubs, unlike Indian tribes, are not sovereign nations.