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Farmers Fight Land Transfer to NorCal Tribe

SACRAMENTO (CN) - The federal government recklessly entrusted 700 acres of protected agricultural land to a Native American tribe and it could spark commercial development in rural Yolo County, an agricultural group claims in court.

The Capay Valley Coalition claims the Bureau of Indian Affairs failed to investigate the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation's trust application before adding 853 acres to the tribe's reservation.

The Capay Valley is northwest of Sacramento in sparsely populated Yolo County, which has only four incorporated cities, including Davis.

The coalition claims the tribe identified a need for 99 acres to build homes, schools and a wastewater plant and that the additional 754 acres are unaccounted for.

It claims that the tribe has twice transferred land it owned into reservation status under the pretense of "tribal housing," but actually converted it into a booming casino and golf course, 45 miles west of Sacramento.

It says it has concerns about the tribe's intentions for the additional land that is zoned for agricultural use, and that Yolo County also initially opposed the tribe's application.

"Once the land is in trust, there's little to no local control over any kind of planning decision," the plaintiffs' attorney Donald Mooney told Courthouse News.

"There's no local land use control over it and [the tribe] is free to do whatever they want."

In 2013, the county sent the Bureau of Indian Affairs a letter calling the transfer a "serious threat to stable land use planning in the county," and pointing out that the tribe already owned and operated 10,000 acres of agricultural land in Yolo County.

The county abandoned its opposition after a closed door session in May 2014, telling the tribe in a letter that it would not appeal the bureau's decision and "respects and appreciates the strong government-to-government partnership we have formed over time."

The transfer of the 853 acres releases the county from taxing and regulatory authority over the land and gives the tribe sole jurisdiction.

Roughly 56 million acres are held in federal trust nationwide for tribes, which run 493 casinos, according to the BIA, including the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation's casino.

Along with the casino and golf course, the tribe has found success farming its 1,300 acres of agricultural land. According to its website, the tribe grows more than a dozen crops and owns a 250-cattle ranch in the Capay Valley on the tribe's 9,000 acres of rangeland.

The coalition claims the BIA failed to thoroughly vet the tribe's claims that it needed the additional acreage to expand its agricultural operations, and that it "ignored the county's public interest concerns to limit of restrict intense commercial development in otherwise protected agricultural valley."

"We don't think [the tribe] has demonstrated an adequate need or basis for removal of the land from fee and held in trust," Mooney said.

The bureau did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday morning.

The coalition seeks declaratory judgment setting aside the land transfer and permanently enjoining defendants from seeking to have the 853 acres taken into trust.

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