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Chumash Casino Expansion Isn’t Legal, Neighbors’ Suit Claims  

By Caroline Simson

Law360, New York (April 3, 2015, 4:40 PM EDT) — A group of Santa Ynez Valley residents sued the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Friday in California federal court over expansion plans for their Chumash Casino Resort, arguing that the underlying property isn’t located on tribal trust lands and that the project must comply with applicable laws.

Save the Valley LLC said in its suit that the expansion plans, which include a “hulking” 12-story, high-rise hotel, a new restaurant and administrative space, and a new five-story parking structure, wrongly proceeded without the requisite approvals under the tribe’s mistaken belief that the property is federally owned, encumbered and restricted fee land.

The group, which is comprised of neighbors of the proposed project and users of the adjacent Santa Ynez Airport, claims that the property in question is not federal “tribal trust” land, as the tribe contends. In fact, the 75-acre property in question was acquired by fee by the U.S. from the Catholic Church through a quit claim deed in 1938.

“No president, Congress, treaty or secretary of the interior has even taken the real property ‘into trust’ for any Indian tribe. As such, the real property and project at issue here is not federally protected Indian trust land and is not immune from the law that applies to ordinary land owners,” the suit says.

The plaintiffs contend that the project would not only be completely incongruous to the surrounding rural area, but would also result in an “enormous and oppressive” impact on its infrastructure. The project is expected to encompass more than 500,000 square feet and service more than 10,000 visitors per day.

The suit claims that the plaintiffs’ property values will decrease if the property is allowed to go forward, because the area does not contain any tall buildings like the one that’s proposed in the project.

The project violates various state and federal environmental regulations, as well as safety and traffic standards, according to the suit, which seeks an injunction halting the expansion.

As the previous owner of the property in question, the Catholic Church had allowed the Santa Ynez tribe, some of whom were recent converts to Catholicism, to use certain portions of the land for “domestic use” and to water livestock and crops, according to the suit.

Following a quiet title proceeding that ended in 1906, in which the Catholic Church was found to be the owner, some of the tribe were permitted to live on the property. The restrictions as to use continued thereafter, the suit says.

Those restrictions forever barred the tribe members and their descendants from claiming any right, title or interest in the land beyond the right of occupancy and for residential uses only, the plaintiffs say, even after the church recorded a quit claim deed transferring the title to the U.S. government in 1938.

Their descendants are the ones proposing the project, according to the suit.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. A Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians spokeswoman was unavailable for comment Friday.

Save the Valley is represented by Matthew M. Clarke, Dugan P. Kelley and Matthew N. Mong of Kelley Clarke PC PC.

Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available on Friday.

The case is Save the Valley LLC v. The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians et al., case number 2:15-cv-02463, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

–Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.