Since 1968, with the creation of the Ag Preserve establishing that the best and highest use for land in unincorporated Napa County is agriculture, Napa County has consistently protected its land from housing developments, shopping centers and encroaching development of all sorts — and the cities have done their part as well, with urban limit lines and similar devices.
In the past, agriculture may have meant running cattle, farming walnuts, growing vegetables or growing grapes for bulk wines, but today it means growing suitable grape varietals to produce world-class wines.
We’re proud of our Ag Preserve, our wine industry and proud that Napa County has not been paved over. There has been long-standing popular support for the protection of our ag lands, and our local elected officials seek to maintain the quality of life here, which is so significantly based around grapes and wines.
Some challenges to land use are thornier than others. Case in point: For the past three years, Napa County officials have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars seeking to stop federal recognition of the Mishewal Wappo Tribe of Alexander Valley. While none would argue against cultural revival celebrating Mishewal Wappo language, traditions and history, official federal recognition brings with it many consequences, some unintended, for our county's economy and patterns of land use. It’s difficult to take a stand against federal recognition of an Indian tribe, but county officials believe federal recognition equals a casino.
Additionally, it could mean other economic development projects, including trucking and warehousing. Scott Gabaldon, tribal chairman of the Mishewal Wappo Tribe since 2007, said the tribe’s 341 members are not wealthy and investors are paying legal fees for the first chance at economic development that the tribe may pursue. He called it a myth that the investors are casino backers.
For Supervisor Diane Dillon, the establishment of a casino, or any economic development project, equals the loss of local control, since a federally recognized tribe is largely exempt from local and state laws. They basically can do anything they want with land they buy, which is contrary to the protection of agriculture in Napa County. Additionally, once the tribe buys land, it doesn’t have to pay property taxes on the land. If stores are built on the land, they do not pay sales taxes and Dillon said the county would be dealing with a “sovereign entity” in regards to many issues, including environmental ones.
Gabaldon said he can understand the public’s concern regarding a casino but added he doesn’t know where the idea of a casino being built in St. Helena comes from. “If I want to do any economic development in Napa County what is the one thing I have to fight?” he asked the editorial board recently. “Traffic,” he said answering his own question. “I don’t care about the Ag Preserve,” but traffic would be horrible, with just “one way in and one way out.” If the tribe decided to do warehousing, he added, it would need to be next to a traffic corridor with adequate infrastructure.
If the tribe wanted to put a Jack-in-the-Box in St. Helena, Gabaldon said it could be done with no local approvals, but added he made a promise to St. Helena officials, including the late Mayor Del Britton, that he would let them know “if I want to do something in St. Helena.” He called the working relationship with St. Helena “good,” something that is missing with the county. He doesn’t believe that Dillon is a good leader and said he would work with the county again, “as long as you get Diane Dillon out of there and a few others.”
The court case to determine if the tribe will be federally recognized is in the judge’s hands and after arguments were made last week, a decision is expected within the next few weeks.
Gabaldon said federal recognition is not about building a casino, but about getting its 341 members federal housing and education benefits. Most of those members are in Sonoma County, although he said there are 40 in Los Angeles County, 18 to 20 in Fresno, 15 in Texas, and he has an aunt in Washington. He claims the members of the tribe meet regularly at their offices in Santa Rosa, and every Saturday morning 15 to 20 tribal members gather for language classes, guided by a UC Berkeley professor and tapes from the last native Wappo speaker.
Dillon said the tribe is seeking federal recognition through litigation because it cannot qualify for recognition through established procedures with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Congress hasn’t recognized it either. And that’s another problem for the tribal leader, who asks if federal recognition is supposed to be an act of Congress, then why isn’t Congressman Mike Thompson carrying “a bill for us? How else are we going to do it?” Since 1959, Gabaldon said 27 tribes have gained recognition and all but one went to litigation rather than through Congress. “Mike’s an idiot,” he added.
Dillon said it’s not only Napa County that is seeking to stop the Mishewal Wappo tribe, but also Sonoma and Solano counties. At the heart of the court case are a determination of who the tribal members are, whether they have exhausted their administrative remedies, and whether the statute of limitations has run out for the tribe.
No matter how the judge rules on the tribe’s lawsuit against the government, Dillon said two proposed modifications of current law, including changes on Part 83, may well make it easier for the Mishewal Wappo tribe and many others to gain federal recognition. Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, who works for the U.S. Department of the Interior, announced the proposed changes.
The second change, Part 151, deals with a tribe’s acquisition of land. If Part 151 is approved, the Bureau of Indian Affairs will allow a comment period of just 30 days before approval of an economic project on tribal lands. Currently, the statute of limitations on land is six years. Even though the six-year period would remain under the new regulations, if the project is already built, what can the county or other local government agencies do if they miss the 30-day period? Not much.
Dillon said if Part 83 passes, then the 227 tribes that have applied for federal recognition through Congress or the BIA will have an easier time getting that recognition, without the current checks and balances that are in place. Put together, the two pending changes are a potential disaster in the making.
Breaking Napa's long-held principle of limiting development in agricultural areas with “anything goes and no restrictions” projects is not, in our opinion, desirable. While we support all efforts to preserve and celebrate the Mishewal Wappo culture, we cannot support potential development that would eviscerate the Ag Preserve. We applaud the County for its active defense of local control for county land use.