On Martha’s Vineyard we prefer to fight in the winter — it is our off-season sport — and at this point the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival is a coming attraction. Before a plan was displayed or a permit application filed, last week a hue and cry rose up across the West Tisbury Facebook landscape over a broad proposal by Film Festival leaders to purchase a 12-acre property off Old County Road and build a campus.
Islanders like their controversies in crystallized form. If personalities are in play, all the better. But even as our focus turns to summer, and more easily digested storylines, a looming court case that hinges on complex legal issues, and which has significant consequences for the character of the entire Island, has attracted scant attention. That is unfortunate.
On Friday, a team of lawyers in the Department of Justice filed a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in support of the view that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) “implicitly repealed” the Settlement Act that has been the bedrock upon which the longstanding legal relationship between the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and the rest of the Martha’s Vineyard community has stood.
The suit was brought by the town of Aquinnah, the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, to stop the Wampanoag Gaming Corporation from building a Class II casino — think flashing high-stakes bingo parlor — in Aquinnah.
The Justice Department’s letter raises the stakes. Although the feds are not a party to the suit, their interest in the case will carry weight. And unlike the town and the Commonwealth, theAquinnah/Gay Head Community Association, which has stood tall where others might shrink away, cannot dig into tax coffers to pay mounting legal bills for a defense that benefits us all.
The tribe is seeking to overturn a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV, issued Nov. 13, 2015, that upheld the settlement agreement, which stipulated that the tribe was subject to local and state laws and zoning regulations in effect at the time.
If the tribe is successful in its appeal, it will not be the residents of tribal lands who will determine the character of Aquinnah — mostly friends and neighbors — but the majority of the tribe’s voting members who live in southeastern Massachusetts, and who have made it clear that economic interests are paramount.
Last August, a petition signed by 73 members of the tribe set the stage for a failed general-membership vote on whether to proceed with turning the community center into a bingo hall. The petition stated in part, “We the undersigned, being eligible voters, believe that gaming on ancestral lands will dramatically impact our culture, and believe that the social costs will far outweigh the uncertain economic benefits.”
At the time of the vote, the tribe’s membership stood at 1,289, according to court filings. Of those, 315 lived on Martha’s Vineyard, while the majority lived in high concentrations within Suffolk, Norfolk, Bristol, Plymouth, Barnstable, and Worcester counties.
Jared James, 34, who traveled from Plymouth for the vote, told The Times, “Of course Aquinnah is the right place for it; where else do you have it? There’s nowhere else out here … why not have it here? Bring some money into the tribe.”
The Justice Department lawyers are not interested in what nullification of the Settlement Act would mean for Martha’s Vineyard. Their stated interest is to defend IGRA. If the tribe’s appeal is successful, it would open the door to gaming on tribal lands in Aquinnah, or any other land the tribe might acquire on the Island and have successfully taken into trust by the federal government — for example, the 17 acres the tribe purchased off State Road for $1,150,000 at the end of 2014. The land abuts the approximately 160 acres of tribal lands and is adjacent to the community center.
Last January, the tribal council voted to complete its long-unfinished community center for its original intended purpose. The tribe must complete the building by Sept. 1, 2016, or repay federal grants totaling $1.1 million.
In an email to The Times Monday, Wampanoag chairman Tobias Vanderhoop said, this dispute is “much more than a simple dispute over gaming.”
In fact, it is and has been all about gaming and the potential to reap gaming dollars. Take that out of the equation, and this lawsuit and its unknown financial backers would evaporate.
In the meantime, Mr. Vanderhoop said, “The Wampanoag Community Center project is moving forward for the benefit of the tribal community.”
What it is time for Mr. Vanderhoop to say is that, irrespective of how the appeal turns out, as leader of the tribe and a resident of Aquinnah, he does not support building a casino on Martha’s Vineyard, for the benefit of the entire Island community.
We congratulate the graduates of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, and the parents, guardians, family, friends, and community members who have guided them to this point. These students have reached a milestone in their young lives.
This is also a good time to say thank you to the seasonal and year-round taxpayers of Martha’s Vineyard, who generously support our Island educational system to the tune of about $20,000 per student annually, based on state Department of Education figures. A conservative estimate is that each graduate represents an approximately $250,000 taxpayer investment that we trust will pay dividends in the future.