The disputed road, just north of the original Sycuan reservation
For two years, Wally Riggs says he had to fight to keep his neighbors, the Sycuan tribe, from putting the west end of his land into the tribal trust — making it part of the tribe's sovereign nation.
This year, he is working to keep control of a road he shares with at least seven of his neighbors — including two Sycuan-owned homes that are already in the tribal trust
"We all share the road," he says. "If it goes into the trust, then they have control of it."
Adam Day, assistant tribal manager and chief administrative officer for the tribe, says that Riggs doesn't understand what the tribe's application means.
"I would share their concerns if it meant they would lose control of the road," Day said. "That's not what's happening."
Day says the tribe never tried to take Riggs's property on the west side and that the road on the east side will not go into the reservation trust, that it will always remain shared.
"Unfortunately, that’s not what the documents that are filed with the County recorder say," Riggs's attorney, Patrick Webb said in an email. "That’s the whole point of the appeal. If Sycuan were to delete the easements from the trust applications, all could be resolved. But so far they haven’t elected to do so."
But a Bureau of Indian Affairs decision to reverse and remand the decision to put the property into the trust says the bureau’s regional director failed to address concerns raised by Riggs and his neighbors when they said putting the easements into the trust would "interfere with their property interests in parcels served by those easements and their shared ownership of the easements themselves."
The decision notes that the bureau argued that the individual owners don't have standing because they did not appeal in a timely fashion — but notes that the individual owners weren't notified of the application to put the property in trust.
The original Singing Hill
Riggs's land is at the foot of what old-timers say is the original Singing Hill immediately north of the Sycuan tribe's original 640-acre reservation. Sharply downhill from Dehesa Road, the oddly shaped parcel of land is about 200 feet by 700 feet, at the north end but wider at the south end and with nicks out of the east side where the Greyhound Rescue Center is located. Riggs's land has been carefully landscaped to create distinct areas for work, for play, and to create a well-defined, manicured area big enough to entertain 100 people in the cool, breezy shade of tall, old-growth trees that mark the west side of the property.
To the south, Riggs keeps his tractors and antique farming equipment — safe from a normally dry drainage channel at the south end. That the west end of his driveway and west half of that shady, manicured area nearly ended up in a federal Bureau of Indian Affairs trust made the fight difficult.
Unlike a normal property-easement process that is handled locally, the county and state have no jurisdiction over the federal administrative process, so Riggs spent a great deal of time and money going through the bureau's internal appeals process.
In 2010, Sycuan applied to the bureau to put a long list of land into the reservation trust. On the list were two easements on either side of Riggs's property. The tribe told the bureau it had an easement for the west side strip about 40' wide and 700' long — stretching from Dehesa Road south to the northern edge of the reservation. The problem was, there was no easement — a legal agreement for separate parties to share the use and responsibility for land. Ever.
"I think the people doing the paperwork made a mistake," Riggs says. "But we couldn't get them to take the application back — they kept saying just let it go into the trust and we'll sort it out."
Riggs and his attorney fought for two years and won the appeal in August 2015. Riggs won't say exactly how much it cost but says it was very expensive and he won't get the money back.
In a separate decision, the Bureau of Indian Affairs administrative law judge addressed the conflict over the narrow asphalt road on the eastern edge. The road runs about a quarter of a mile south before it hooks west and climbs the hill into the reservation. At least seven houses — two of which are owned by Sycuan and have already been moved into the reservation trust — share that private road before it goes onto the reservation. The tribe is seeking a 40-foot-wide strip that includes the road and a primitive bridge over a flood channel
"Getting all the owners to pay their share for maintenance is tough," Riggs says. "If it goes into the trust, we'll have nothing to say about that at all."
In ordering the bureau to redo its decision because it failed to respond to owners' concerns, the decision says that the owners "appear to be confused" about the effect of placing the tribe's ownership share of the easement into the tribal trust. It does not mean they would lose their ownership stake, the judge wrote, but they were left out and that calls for a do-over.
Day, from Sycuan, blames the mess on the bureau. "The Bureau of Indian Affairs made procedural errors that have to be reviewed," he said.
Neighbors are guessing that the long-term plan for the road is for reservation residents to be able to come and go without facing the challenges of casino traffic.
"We don't mind sharing it, we always have," Riggs says. "We mind losing control of it. A time could come that they tell us we can't use it at all, and, once it's in the trust, we'd have no way to challenge that."
Riggs hasn't fought every easement. He shares land along the south edge of his property with the tribe, and he doesn't mind it.
"I just got permission from [Sycuan tribal chairman] Cody Martinez to spray it for weeds," he says. "In writing."
(updated 2/27, 6:15 p.m.)