Martha’s Vineyard residents and visitors benefit from a number of private, nonprofit organizations. Most rely on a dedicated core of volunteers who are willing to do the heavy lifting, and they derive the majority of their financial support from a small percentage of Island seasonal and year-round residents, but promote missions that benefit all who live and visit here.
The more public organizations readily spring to mind. Walking trails, open vistas, fishing derbies, and sporting events organized to support a good cause are tangible enjoyments with which we can all identify. A series of lawsuits in state and federal courts? Not so much.
But make no mistake. The decades-long, and costly, legal battle the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association (AGHCA) has waged to force the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head to adhere to the terms of the settlement agreement it signed is of vital interest to all Island residents, because it ensures that zoning restrictions agreed to by town voters may be enforced on tribal lands.
Since its founding in 1973, the Gay Head Taxpayers Association, later renamed, has repeatedly gone to court to protect the terms of the 1983 settlement agreement between the town, the state, the tribe, and the nonresident taxpayers of what was then Gay Head. That agreement helped untangle land claims that had tied real estate transactions in the town in a knot.
Ratified by the state legislature in 1985 and by Congress in 1987, the Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1987, which all parties signed, provides that the settlement lands “shall be subject to all federal, state, and local laws, including town zoning laws, state and federal conservation laws and the regulations of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC).”
Individuals may chafe from time to time over zoning restrictions. This page has from time to time criticized the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for declaring a project a development of regional impact when the regional impact is hard to discern. But it is those zoning regulations, formulated over time and approved on town meeting floors, that Island citizens have relied on to preserve the quality and character of Martha’s Vineyard.
Absent the settlement agreement, the tribe would be free to develop its lands as it sees fit. The tribe has argued that its own land-use regulations mirror those of the town of Aquinnah, and are every bit as stringent. It is a claim that is hard to reconcile with two successive votes by the tribal membership to turn an unused community center erected with taxpayer funds into a boutique casino. All Islanders have a stake in the AGHCA fight, and the AGHCA ought to be able to count on their support.
The AGHCA won a significant victory last month. In a decision dated Feb. 27, U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV said that the tribe remains bound by the terms of the settlement agreement, and knowingly waived its sovereign immunity with respect to tribal lands.
The context was a lawsuit filed in December 2013 by Governor Deval Patrick to block the tribe from moving forward with a gaming facility on Martha’s Vineyard. The Patrick administration argued that the tribe forfeited its right to tribal gaming on the Island when it signed the settlement act.
The question still to be answered is whether the the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) signed in 1988 trumps the settlement act. That answer is likely years and many more legal bills down the road. But one may infer from Judge Saylor’s decision that irrespective of whether the tribe is allowed to go into the gambling business — a gamble at best — it will still be required to abide by local zoning regulations.
The Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association, Inc. was not formed solely to engage in legal fights. Over the years it has generously supported a number of activities, including those of the tribe, and most recently has lent considerable support to the effort to move the Gay Head Lighthouse back from the brink of destruction.
Ideally, tribal leaders would honor an agreement signed in good faith and upheld by state and federal judges, and the AGHCA could begin to devote the group’s energy and money to community endeavors and not lawsuits.