Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Files Lawsuit in San Benito County to Set Aside County Approval of an Extensive Commercial Project on Betabel
December 16, 2022
HOLLISTER, Calif. – The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band has filed a lawsuit in San Benito County to protect their ancestral lands from development. They are asking the state Superior Court in San Benito County to set aside the County’s approval of an extensive commercial project on Betabel, a site that holds significant historical, cultural and religious value to the Tribe and that serves as a critical wildlife corridor and valuable open space for the community. The lawsuit further asks the Court to prohibit the project from moving forward unless and until the developers and County comply with regulations under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), state planning and zoning law, and the County General Plan and Zoning Code.
The developers have proposed to build a large roadside tourist attraction on Betabel with several commercial buildings, including a hotel, shops, restaurant, gas station, and visitor center. The site is part of the Juristac Tribal Cultural Landscape, and contains numerous tribal cultural resources that will be irreparably harmed by the project. County voters previously rejected an effort to re-zone this area to allow hotels and similar commercial development.
The lawsuit was filed against the County of San Benito, the County Board of Supervisors, and the project developers, Thomas John and Victoria McDowell.
“The landscape of Betabel and the larger Juristac area holds so much of our Tribe’s history and culture,” said Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. “The people of our Tribal Band were stewards of this land since time immemorial. We are trying to work with the County, the developer and the community to resolve this issue in a way that is fair to all parties, while insisting that our rights, as a Native American Tribe with historical claim to this land, be respected.”
CEQA requires public agencies, such as a county Board of Supervisors, to analyze a proposed project’s impacts on Tribal Cultural Resources; to engage in meaningful and timely consultation with Tribes possessing a traditional and cultural connection to the area of the project; and to mitigate those impacts to avoid damaging cultural resources if at all possible.
The Amah Mutsun provided to the County information about the Tribal cultural resources on Betabel, including a detailed ethnographic study. The lawsuit states that the County failed to consult with the Tribe and that their draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project fails to properly consider or mitigate the impacts of the project to these cultural resources. The County also failed to revise the EIR to consider the project’s impact on the unique value and conditions of at least five individual sites and features that have cultural or archeological significance.
“The County rushed through this commercial development proposal, neglecting to finish basic studies requested by the Tribe in time for them to be considered, and releasing a blatantly incomplete environmental impact report,” said Sara A. Clark, Partner at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP, the law firm representing the Amah Mutsun. “Then the County failed to revise their report to incorporate information on Tribal cultural resources at the project site. We are asking that the County follow their own local laws and the laws of the State of California.”
Betabel is located within a landscape known as Juristac, the aboriginal homeland of the Mutsun people, part of the larger group of Ohlone people. Their connection to their land was disrupted after European colonization brought genocide, forced displacement, land theft, and internment at Mission San Juan Batista and Mission Santa Cruz. Amah Mutsun Tribal members are descendants of Indigenous people who survived these forces. For more information about the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, see their website at http://amahmutsun.org/.
The project site also holds critical value in connecting protected wildlife habitat in the adjacent mountain ranges. Located near the confluence of the Pajaro and San Benito Rivers, Betabel is used by mountain lions, bobcats and other mammals from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Diablo and Gabilan Ranges.