The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) hit another roadblock in its effort to build a casino this week after Freetown voters overwhelmingly opposed a tribal gambling facility in their town.

The nonbinding special election vote was 954 to 308 on the question of whether to allow a Class III casino. A total of 1,262 voters turned out to the polls, about 22 per cent of those registered. Freetown assistant town clerk Diane Souza said the annual town election in April saw a 13 per cent turnout.

Freetown selectman and board chairman Jean Fox said yesterday that she believed voters did not have enough tangible information to back the proposed $167 million facility.

“The vote was a pretty clear message delivered on the part of the voters that this was too much too fast,” Ms. Fox said. “[The town] tends to really want to thoroughly analyze things, and just like any new business venture, you want to see a business plan. This plan was not firm enough for people to feel comfortable to say this is a good thing.”

Preliminary plans released at a public forum in Lakeville last week were met with sharp criticism from residents, who expressed concern about crime, traffic and the scale of the project. The preliminary concept calls for a 145,000-square-foot casino with 2,700 machines and 36 table games, as well as a 150,000-square-foot hotel and 130,000-square-foot parking garage. The tribe has signed a purchase and sale agreement to buy 514 acres of land spanning Lakeville and Freetown.

Lakeville voters will go to the polls tomorrow for a similar nonbinding referendum vote.

In a press release this week the tribe pledged to fund mitigation fees for increased police and fire department staffing, public safety and emergency services, road infrastructure, water and sewer usage, refuse removal, and school improvements in the host community.

Ms. Fox credited the Vineyard tribe for the mitigation plan, but said for now the town is in a “wait and see mode” pending the Lakeville vote results.

“I can’t gauge what will happen in Lakeville but there were an awful lot of Lakeville residents against the casino outside the Freetown polling place, I didn’t see a lot of favorable support,” she said. “We’ll see what happens. I think for us to have a 22 per cent of registered voters versus 13 per cent at the annual election is a statement.”

In a statement e-mailed to the Gazette this week, tribal chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said the outcome was disappointing but “truly not unexpected.” She pointed to the July 31 deadline as a fault in the process. The tribe has until that time to enter into compact negotiations with Gov. Deval Patrick. To date, the governor has refused to negotiate with the Vineyard tribe, claiming that the tribe waived its sovereignty when it signed a 1987 land settlement agreement. The tribe has said it will sue in federal court to establish its rights to build a casino. Meanwhile, in her statement, Mrs. Andrews-Maltais cited a litany of reasons for the negative vote in Freetown.

“Confused voters vote no, rushed voters vote no, uncertainty results in a no vote, risk of litigation results in a no vote, lack of detail results in a no vote,” she wrote. “We did not want to proceed to a vote under these circumstances, but in order to comply with the unreasonable timelines of a poorly written law, we had no choice but to proceed as we did.”

If the vote fails on Saturday, Mrs. Andrews-Maltais said the Vineyard tribe will continue to press for a seat at the table and reach out to both towns for casinos under federal law.

“The commonwealth’s poorly written law and the Patrick administration’s refusal to abide by that law is the real story here. Tuesday’s vote was only one small chapter,” she wrote. “Keep reading. When all is said and done, there will be an Aquinnah casino developed through a proper process.”

Jason Lefferts, director of communications for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, said the vote was one piece of the puzzle.

“By voting on Tuesday night Freetown fulfilled one of Governor Patrick’s priorities in the gaming discussion, which is ensuring that local communities have a voice in the conversation,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Gazette.
The tribe is vying for one of three state casino licenses reserved for an American Indian tribe under the state gaming law enacted late last year. Under the law, the tribe most comply with five requirements — request for compact negotiations, host a referendum vote, proof of federal recognition, proof of land under option and enter into an intergovernmental agreement with the host community.

The governor has already begun negotiations with the Mashpee Wampanoags, who recently unveiled plans for a $500 million casino in Taunton. The Mashpee tribe has an intergovernmental agreement with Taunton that calls for an up-front payment of $33 million to Taunton and up to $13 million a year as mitigation monies for hosting the casino.

Taunton voters will voice their opinion at the polls on June 5.

By Remy Tumin