Federal recognition for tribe in sight after 21 years

La Jolla developer Wayne Pierce had hoped to develop on Sargent

The local Amah Mutsun tribe has vaulted to No. 3 in line for
federal recognition on the Bureau of Indian Affair’s list, but what
that means for plans to put an American Indian casino and a huge
sand quarry on the 6,500-acre Sargent Ranch just south of Gilroy is
less certain than a


bet on the roulette wheel.
The local Amah Mutsun tribe has vaulted to No. 3 in line for federal recognition on the Bureau of Indian Affair’s list, but what that means for plans to put an American Indian casino and a huge sand quarry on the 6,500-acre Sargent Ranch just south of Gilroy is less certain than a “OO” bet on the roulette wheel.

Any movement is progress for the Mutsun, whose 21-year quest had been entwined in a tribal battle between two opposing councils. It also involved La Jolla developer Wayne Pierce and his backdoor attempts to develop land in concert with an illegitimate Mutsun faction headed by former Mutsun chairwoman Irenne Zwierlein.

For now, the casino question is at-large; temporarily shuffled in a deck of litigation as Sargent Ranch, LLC, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 2010 and is slated for court hearings this month.

Despite negative association to land scheme drama conjured by the Pierce/Zwierlein duo, the Mutsun are looking ahead to may what be in store.

Having crawled to No. 13 in 2004 and No. 9 in 2006, the group’s claim has inched forward since their petition for national legitimacy as a tribal entity was filed in 1990.

Mutsun leader Valentine Lopez, who told the Dispatch in November he believed the tribe was fifth on the list, speculated Wednesday the light at the end of political purgatory could approach in as little as five years – but he’s not holding his breath.

“This isn’t done overnight. It’s a very strict process,” explained Nedra Darling, spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior of Indian Affairs who identified the BIA’s list of seven stringent criteria a tribe must fulfill – and prove – to achieve recognized status.

It’s a bureaucratic maze of consulting between petitioners, third parties and the Office of Federal Acknowledgment – whose staff consists of anthropologists, genealogists and historians that scrutinize records and lineage.

For the Mutsun, the already tedious recognition effort was soured in 2000 after Zwierlein dissented and formed her own splinter group. She teamed with Pierce, signing an economic development plan that would have allowed him to sidestep county zoning laws, build on a large portion of Sargent Ranch and lease 500 acres back to the Mutsun.

This plan was based on the Mutsun gaining federal recognition along with a land trust, though there was never any guarantee it would be Sargent Ranch.

Though repeatedly claiming he had no plans to erect gaming facilities on the property, a website discovered by the Dispatch in November listing Pierce as the contact showed his true intentions to lure investors with blueprints for a “Luxury Gaming Resort” and “Sand Quarry.”

The project stalled significantly in 2007 after federal officials said Zwierlein forged and mailed documents to the government in what Lopez called an attempt to cling to power, but Zwierlein’s relation to Pierce and the tension it aggravated have not disappeared from Mutsun affairs.

The BIA’s most recent paperwork dating Sept. 2, 2008 lists Zwierlein and Lopez as the official governing contacts according to Darling, who said Wednesday she was unaware of any tribal rifts.

To this, Lopez explained when their petition comes up for review, the OFA will determine which group it wants to deal with. He pointed out Zwierlein is no longer a legitimate chairwoman and has formally resigned from leadership in writing.

“We’re perfectly satisfied with that, because Irenne has no legitimacy whatsoever,” he said. “So based on that, we’re completely confident that it’s our tribe the OFA will work with, and will recognize.”

Sacred Territory Stuck in Stalemate

What lies in store for Sargent Ranch – a vast expanse of undulating hills, pristine streams, unsullied wildlife habitats and unincorporated farmland dangling from the hook of an elusive development fishing line – is unclear.

Pierce has at least temporarily lost control of the property, located on the west side of U.S. 101 between the Castro Valley Ranch and the San Benito and Santa Cruz county lines, since turning it over to a reorganization group. The land is ensnared in lawsuits between Sargent Ranch, LLC, Pierce, his business partners and more than 100 lenders who invested in Pierce’s flopped development undertakings, according to court documents obtained by the Dispatch.

A court minute order reveals the latest legal buzz – a Thursday status hearing on a request filed by Pierce’s opposition to get Sargent Ranch, LLC out of bankruptcy and proceed into foreclosure at the United States Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of California.

What this could mean for Pierce’s lenders, to whom he’s made no significant payments according to court documents, is hazy.

A court document filed Nov. 24 supporting this motion shows the appraised value of the property is now $9.3 million, and that “consequently, the debtor has no equity in the property.” The document states during the past 11 months of this bankruptcy, “the debtor has reported no significant income and has made no interest payments to any of the secured creditors.”

When Pierce filed for bankruptcy in 2010, the Dispatch reported he owed $90 million on the property.

The minute order also reveals a Feb. 14 hearing on the motion to disqualify the Watley Group, the consulting firm obtained by Pierce that specializes in turning around and developing a plan of reorganization for companies in trouble, according to Watley’s LinkedIn profile.

The Nov. 24 request to move out of bankruptcy indicates the Watley Group’s reorganization plan is based on making no significant interest payments to the secured creditors for four years.

It also proposes to pay Wayne Pierce a salary of $250,000 per year.

Looking Ahead

It is unclear if Pierce – his lawyers did not return calls for this story – and Zwierlein are still working together.

Zwierlein, in mourning for her husband Harold Zwierlein who passed away Nov. 9 sent a Jan. 3 message to the Dispatch from her Woodside home, saying she was unavailable for comment.

Darling said she had never heard of Pierce or of Zwierlein’s involvement with Sargent Ranch, LLC. She was also unaware of any land deals relating to the tribe’s petition for federal recognition.

“It could be years to come, but I don’t think it’s bad at all, either,” said Darling, referring to the Mutsun’s status. “It’s better than where they were.”

The OFA’s latest report from Nov. 19 showed 29 tribal petitions had been denied federal acknowledgment, 17 were successfully granted federal acknowledgment and 250 groups had submitted letters of intent or partially documented petitions.

The Mutsun are third in line out of four tribes on the BIA’s “ready” list waiting to be moved to the “active” list, of which there were 12 as of Nov. 19, according to the OFA.

If the Mutsun are granted official recognition, they’ll be given access to government services and a land trust, but there’s no guarantee or plausible indication it could be Sargent Ranch.

Darling explained some tribes already own land, and others purchase land on or near the heart of their historic territory of heritage.

Having an influential opinion in what happens to Sargent Ranch is desired, of course; the Mutsun maintain they want it preserved in its natural state. They would also like to hold ceremonies there, periodically.

But Lopez joked stars need to align perfectly for that to happen.

“We would never be able to purchase it, for example,” he said. “But our hope is to someday be able to have access to the land.”

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