California Tribes Talk Back on Fee-to-Trust Foot-Dragging

For nearly 30 years, San Diego County has opposed virtually all land-to-trust applications by local tribes. The policy has created simmering resentment in a county with more tribal casinos than any in the U.S, and Rincon Tribe Chairman Bo Mazzetti (l.) believes it’s a “racist” policy.

California Tribes Talk Back on Fee-to-Trust Foot-Dragging

For nearly 30 years, San Diego County in Southern California has had a blanket policy to oppose any land-into-trust application by one of its 18 Indian tribes. This policy has created a less than cooperative attitude between the tribes and county officials.

Earlier this month, County Supervisor Jim Desmond, whose Fifth District includes six reservations, argued to rescind the policy. When the board postponed a decision until May 15, Desmond called the inaction a “slap in the face” of the tribal nations.

“This is embarrassing,” he said.

Billion-Dollar Economy

In San Diego County, Indian gaming is a $1 billion industry. The county hosts more Indian casinos than any other county in the U.S., with tribal governments helping to fund mutual aid for emergency services, fire protection, law enforcement and ambulance services.

County opposition doesn’t mean the land isn’t put into trust—in fact, that’s rarely the case. But it’s one of many considerations looked at by the Bureau of Indian Affairs when it makes that determination.

For Pauma Reservation Chairman Temet Aguilar, the county’s attitude is outmoded and frustrating.

“For me, non-Indians talk out of both sides of their mouth,” he said. “This is a county we want to collaborate with, which we do collaborate with on all sorts of things, with the district attorney and the sheriff’s department. To have the county on the other side saying, ‘We oppose anything,’ is disheartening.”

For many, including a lot of local politicians, the process of putting land into trust—i.e., to convert it from taxable land into federal trust land—is associated largely with casinos. Pauma does have a casino, but the tribes have other reasons to put land into trust, said Aguilar.

“For Pauma, when we acquire property, we’re doing it to build homes. Our reservation is very small, and so we acquire land so we can raise our children. Yet this county policy that says, ‘We oppose that.’”

‘Special Attention’

Bo Mazzetti, chairman of the Rincon Tribe, which owns the Harrah’s Resort Southern California, echoed Desmond’s charge that foot-dragging on the Desmond proposal is “a slap in the face of tribes.”

“It’s very, very disappointing. There was no reason to postpone. Who was in opposition? We don’t know. All we’re asking is that a decades-old policy, to oppose all fee-to-trust—which Supervisor Desmond brought forth to evaluate on a case-by case basis—be changed. It’s really almost a racist policy, and I don’t use that term lightly.”

Mazzetti said the county also subjects tribes to extra scrutiny—“special attention”—when it comes to applications for liquor licenses. Desmond’s proposal would also repeal that practice and create a tribal liaison to manage the relationship between the county and the tribes.

When land is put into trust, it belongs to the United States government and is held in trust for the tribe’s use. It’s not true that the land is no longer taxable, said Mazzetti. “Once the land is entitled to the U.S. government for beneficial use of the tribe and put into trust status, federal impact fees are paid by the federal government to the state and county for lands, such as Camp Pendleton or reservation land that don’t pay county taxes.”

A Move Toward Cooperation

Another example of the county’s resistance to fee-to-trust application was its drawn-out opposition to the Jamul Indian Village’s Jamul Casino. Former Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who lives in Jamul, insisted that the county oppose the casino at every step. But the tribe’s fee-to-trust applications aren’t all related to gaming. Currently, Jamul Indian Village is trying to put land into trust for residences for its 72 members. It’s also applied to put a historic 2.34-acre cemetery into trust.

Aguilar said he was pleased when Desmond spoke up on behalf of tribes. “It’s past due,” he said. “I don’t know why (the board) postponed its decision. They still have the right to oppose anything, but the tribes aren’t looking for blanket support. We look to be good neighbors.”

At the hearing on Desmond’s motion, Aguilar gave half of his testimony in the Luiseno language, to make a point.

He told GGB News, “Natives are some of the best taxpayers in the country. What better taxpayer could you have than one that sits in a small postage stamp and spends it on the local economy? But every time any tribe submits an application for trust, the county automatically opposes. Whether it’s to build a non-profit, they still oppose.

“We don’t get any of the tax benefits; we’ve been collecting those taxes on the reservation for non-Indians,” he added. “This is 2021. This isn’t the ’90s, and it isn’t the ’50s. We don’t have any problems helping with off-reservation impacts, even contributing to road improvements. The tribes have always been partners that want to cooperate as we move forward.”

Articles by Author: David Ross

David D. Ross edits the Escondido Times-Advocate and Valley Roadrunner newspapers. A freelance journalist for over 40 years, Ross is knowledgeable about San Diego's backcountry and has written on tourism in Julian, Palomar Mountain, San Diego Safari Park—and the area’s casinos. He has a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.