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Battle Brewing over California Tribal Expansion

Area resident, TV icon, winemaker and real estate developer Fess Parker, now 81, wanted to develop some of his land near Santa Ynez in conjunction with the tribe. "I'm not prepared to sit on the front porch in a rocking chair," Parker says.
Ina Jaffe, NPR /
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Area resident, TV icon, winemaker and real estate developer Fess Parker, now 81, wanted to develop some of his land near Santa Ynez in conjunction with the tribe. "I'm not prepared to sit on the front porch in a rocking chair," Parker says.
Tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta. "The individuals I'm speaking to need to understand the rights of a tribal government," he says of opponents to the tribe's expansion plans.
Ina Jaffe, NPR /
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Tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta. "The individuals I'm speaking to need to understand the rights of a tribal government," he says of opponents to the tribe's expansion plans.
Worth fighting for -- an idyllic view on Fess Parker's property in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Ina Jaffe, NPR /
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Worth fighting for -- an idyllic view on Fess Parker's property in the Santa Ynez Valley.

There's a battle brewing in the Santa Barbara wine country of Southern California -- and it has nothing to do with grapes. The Chumash band of Santa Ynez Mission Indians want to use profits from its casino to expand its land holdings and business ventures.

But tribal officials are battling some of the rich and famous residents of the bucolic Santa Ynez Valley, who say the tribe's plan could destroy the region's rural character forever.

Until very recently, the Chumash lived in deep poverty. Now the popular tribe-owned casino, the only business in the valley open 24-7, clears a reported $200 million a year. Each of the tribe's 154 members take a share in the profits.

The casino complex, which includes a luxury hotel, three restaurants and a concert hall is squeezed into a narrow piece of land where the reservation runs up against the valley's main road. Right across the road is the old-fashioned center of the town of Santa Ynez, population 4,600.

The tribe has purchased several acres next to the town, and wants to build a cultural center and museum on part of it, along with a retail complex and a park. But local groups and county officials, worried about traffic congestion, overdevelopment and pollution, have filed protests with the federal government to put a stop to it.

Tribal leaders don't believe they need to reach agreements with community organizations.

"They need to understand that the tribes... have the right to do this," says tribe Chairman Vincent Armenta, referring to the local citizens' groups.

"We're willing to work with the county government -- but understand, it's two governments working together."

Negotiations between the tribe and the county broke down recently, leading Armenta to state the county was "basically declaring war on any issue the tribe is faced with." County leaders, however, say they want talks to continue.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."