|By Alfonso A. Castillo and Mitchell
Freedman, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 31, 2007 - A federal judge yesterday struck down the Shinnecock Indian Nation's bid to build a casino on a disputed parcel of land in Hampton Bays -- in part because of the "disastrous" impact such a facility would have on East End traffic.
While the tribe still has other cards to play in its quest to bring Indian gaming to Long Island, experts said the decision likely represented the death knell for any plans for a casino at the Westwoods site.
"We will never back down in our fight to provide justice and economic opportunity for our people," tribal leaders said in a statement yesterday.
While acknowledging the "substantial economic hardships" faced by the nation, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Bianco said his role was not to remedy those problems, but rather to examine the evidence -- evidence that he said demonstrated "in an overwhelming fashion" that the tribe had no right to build a casino on the proposed site.
Bianco also noted that the tribe was not federally recognized, but his decision does not affect the status of the tribe's quest for that recognition.
Southampton Supervisor Patrick Heaney said the decision spelled the end of a long and expensive legal battle.
"We spent $3.9 million and four years fighting it. It took 13,000 man hours of legal services," Heaney said. "I feel good ... it's a $3.9-million aspirin."
The ruling followed a federal trial in Central Islip that began last year. Although the Shinnecock argued that their sovereignty made them immune from zoning laws, the town maintained that while the tribe is the current owner of the property, it did not have "aboriginal" title to the land because it was once sold to non-Indians.
The land would have to be recognized as part of the main reservation to the east in Southampton if gaming were to be allowed there under federal law.
In his decision, Bianco gave three grounds for ruling against the Shinnecock. First, Bianco agreed that several documents prove "in clear and unequivocal language" that the tribe's aboriginal title was extinguished in the 17th century.
Secondly, even if the Shinnecock could prove aboriginal title, Bianco cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred building a casino if it would have "highly disruptive consequences" on neighboring landowners, the town and all of Suffolk. "The only rational conclusion to be drawn from the evidence is that ... the addition of a casino to this already overburdened traffic system would be disastrous," Bianco wrote.
Lastly, Bianco noted the Shinnecock do not have protection under federal law to build a casino because they are not federally recognized as a sovereign tribe, and Westwoods is not federally recognized as Indian land.
Shinnecock officials vowed to appeal the decision, but left the door open for an alternate resolution between the tribe and government officials.
The tribe said earlier this month that it would consider dropping its plans in Southampton if it were allowed to build a full-scale gambling operation -- complete with 4,500 video lottery terminals -- at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens.
"We remain willing to work with local, state and federal officials on a solution that provides longterm benefits for the Nation and our neighbors," tribal leaders said in a statement.
John Strong, a retired Southampton College professor and expert on the Shinnecock, said that with the "door closed" on Westwoods, the tribe has likely lost some valuable leverage in any other proposals. However, Strong added that, without the looming threat of a casino, the tribe could see their application for federal recognition expedited.
"It's a blow, but it's not a devastating blow," Strong said. "It's important to know that the Shinnecock always saw that as a bargaining chip anyway."
Twenty-year Hampton Bays resident George Zaloom said he was relieved with news of the decision, in part because he dreaded the "confusion" that extra visitors and traffic would create in his community. Still, Zaloom feared the fight may not be over. "Its absolutely going to come back again," he said.
ISSUE FAR FROM OVER
Yesterday's federal court ruling, which gave Southampton Town a permanent injunction banning the construction of a proposed Shinnecock Nation gambling casino in the town, does not put an end to the issues facing the tribe. The ruling can be appealed. Open questions facing the Shinnecock Nation include:
Federal Status. The Shinnecock's application to become a federally recognized tribe, which can open the door to numerous benefits, is still under review.
New York City gambling. The tribe is seeking to operate a video lottery terminal casinos at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. The Shinnecock were among seven entities that submitted bids to operate 4,500 video lottery terminals at Aqueduct.
The land itself. The 80-acre mostly-wooded property which the tribe claims as historic sacred land, and in which the town has recognized that the tribe has an interest, is zoned R-60, or one private home for every 1.5 acres. The land could be developed traditionally, or the town could work with the tribe to leave it untouched and apply the development rights to another project elsewhere in Southampton.
In a prepared statement, the Shinnecock Nation Board of Trustees said: "This is just one more obstacle that the Shinnecock Indian Nation, which has had a social and cultural presence for thousands of years on the eastern end of Long Island, will have to overcome." -- MITCHELL FREEDMAN
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