Don’t Lien on Me: The Pala Band Tries to Return to Warner Springs

San Diego Reader 11.23.10

In 1903, Native Americans who had occupied Warner Hot Springs and surrounding land for many generations were forced by the United States to evacuate in a three-day trek called the Trail of Tears. But a century later, the tribe was prospering and agreed to buy the Warner property back, intending to occupy it in August. It hasn’t happened. It seems there is a Paper Trail of Tears delaying the closing of escrow and the triumphant return.

The relatively small Cupeño tribe was forced by American authorities to depart Warner, in the foothills of Palomar Mountain, and join the Luiseño Indians — the first time two separate Indian tribes were forcefully united on one reservation. They still live on 12,273 acres near Palomar Mountain as the Pala Band of Mission Indians.

And they have enjoyed the last laugh. They have a thriving casino and lease property to a company that operates a motocross raceway on tribal land. Profits from the casino permitted them to agree to pay $20.5 million last year for Warner Springs Ranch, near the backcountry crossroads of Warner Springs. The membership-owned resort has 240 cottages, a golf course, three pools, tennis courts, horseback-riding facilities, exercise rooms — and longtime chronic financial problems complicated by bitter divisions among the owners.

The Pala Indians will probably take over Warner Springs Ranch eventually because they already own almost 15 percent of it, having bought out some owners in individual deals. They intend to spend money refurbishing it and welcome the public, particularly the original members. But delaying the final purchase and occupancy are mountains of paperwork headaches: completion of 2452 title searches; elimination of liens, leases, subleases, encroachments, and easements that the Indians want removed; and resolution of one nettlesome lawsuit. The Pala Band has no idea when its members will be able to occupy Warner Springs Ranch, says spokesman Doug Elmets.

“Sometimes deeds are in the wrong name, there has been a death of a spouse, federal tax liens — those types of things occurred over 25 years,” says Jim Stilwell, general manager of the ranch. And clearing away easements and liens is no picnic.

The United States has a long and ugly history of war with Native Americans. Now, the Native Americans are hoping for peace — among the white members of Warner, who seemingly can’t stop warring among themselves.

The ranch opened in the early 1980s with the intention of being a private club owned by 2000 members. But membership reached about 1200 at the peak. Unfortunately, “Owners [have been] keeping bad records,” says Stilwell. For example, the ranch didn’t foreclose on Betty Broderick, whose murder of her husband dominated news in the early 1990s, until well after she was in prison.

The ranch is an hour and a half from San Diego and two hours from Los Angeles. As Warner Springs Ranch aged, those who lived farther away and may have inherited their ownerships began agitating for the facility to be sold. They are paying $382 a month plus occasional special assessments, and many don’t go there at all. But a group who live closer, particularly at Los Tules, a subdivision that used to be part of the ranch, use the ranch frequently and have fought a sale to the Pala Band — recruiting other potential buyers who ultimately did not have the means to do the deal.

The ranch’s board was “hijacked by a cabal of self-serving individuals,” says Patrick Roche, an owner who has been pressing for several years for a sale to the Pala Band. The so-called Los Tules group “corrupted the deal by putting in poison pills,” he charges. (In corporate parlance, a poison pill is a defensive strategy to thwart an outside takeover.) Roche points to an easement across the property that last year was granted to a developer who wants to build homes near Warner Springs Ranch but can’t do so without a road through ranch property. Pala wants that easement removed. That and other similar moves throw up roadblocks to the deal’s consummation, say those pushing for a sale to the Pala Band. Because of such uncertainty, one-third of the members stopped paying dues this fall, says Roche, as the ranch laid off half its staff, now down to 80.

In November of last year, in a procedure called the assent process, two-thirds of members agreed to sell the ranch. But John Gubler filed suit in North County Superior Court, saying the vote count was not valid. Gubler says the court should be ruling on his suit soon. “The reason for our lawsuit is to protect and preserve this unique property from destruction by a possible casino,” he says. “There are many owners who do not agree with the sale of this property.”

The casino rumor is a canard, says Pala. Last year, Pala assured owners that it would not build a casino at Warner. But the sales contract indicates “there will be no casinos as long as it is illegal and for ten years,” says Stilwell, the ranch’s general manager.

To many at the ranch, this sounds as if the Indians are hedging their bet. Not so, ripostes Pala spokesman Elmets. “The tribe has absolutely no intention of ever building a casino at Warner Springs,” he says. The tribe has a casino 38 miles away, and Warner is considered sacred ground. “The seller wanted us to put in the clause that no casino would be built there for ten years.”

Why did Warner’s board insist on that? The owners who want a sale think it was a scare tactic — still another poison pill, says Roche.

In April of last year, a prominent law firm recommended that the quickest way to work out the paperwork snarls would be to negotiate a sales agreement and then go bankrupt. The court could sort things out more rapidly. “It would have been a quicker and more efficient way of obtaining clear titles,” says owner Greg Maizlish. But the bankruptcy route was not chosen. Maizlish says that, in his opinion, some owners “fundamentally don’t want to sell to the Indians. There is no question in my mind that part of the motivation…is racist.”

Maizlish puts much of the blame on “the Los Tules faction,” but Stilwell says, “The Los Tules influence is grossly exaggerated, although the people who live in Los Tules use [the ranch] more than the people who don’t.”

There is agreement all around on one point: Warner Springs Ranch badly needs a facelift. “The ranch is filthy with debris,” says member George Penman, complaining that the ranch is “notorious for mismanagement.”

“We want to do much-needed renovations,” says Elmets. “The infrastructure is not in good shape,” concedes Richard Bye, chief executive of the board.

Roche thinks it may be a year before the deal goes through. Others won’t hazard a guess. Emphasizes Bye, “The board is very committed to the sale to the Pala Indians — 100 percent. Nobody on the board is doing anything to stall this.”

Now if the board can just get pro-Pala members to believe that.

Pala Band of Mission Indians

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