As the plan to build a resort-style casino in Southeastern Massachusetts continues to run into roadblocks, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is quietly moving to complete construction work on the tribal community center in Aquinnah where it wants to open a high-stakes bingo hall.

Construction on the community center began eight years ago, and the building is still unfinished. The town has not issued a certificate of occupancy for the building and the tribe has not applied for one. But early this month it applied for an electrical permit with the town, and on Tuesday the town selectmen went into executive session with their town counsel to discuss the matter, using the clause under the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law that allows the board to go behind closed doors to discuss litigation.

Two months ago the tribe announced plans to bring class II gaming to Aquinnah in the form of a bingo hall featuring electronic games, and said it would sue in federal court to protect its rights to pursue casino gambling, countering an opinion issued by Aquinnah town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport that the tribe could not operate a casino on land it owns in Aquinnah.

The tribe simultaneously has been pressing plans to build a $167 million casino and resort on 515 acres of land spanning the towns of Lakeville and Freetown. That venture has seen a series of setbacks, beginning with Gov. Deval Patrick’s refusal to negotiate with the tribe, claiming it waived its sovereignty in a 1983 land settlement agreement. Then, in back-to-back nonbinding referendums, voters in Freetown and Lakeville turned out in large numbers to reject the Vineyard Wampanoags’ casino initiative. The vote in Lakeville last Saturday was 1,735 to 172 against the casino question, a 10 to 1 margin. Freetown voters acted similarly the week before, rejecting the question by a three to one margin. “No Dice,” read the placards carried by townspeople at the polls on both voting days.

Meanwhile, Aquinnah elected officials are turning their attention to the tribal community center, where construction work has begun anew.

The tribe broke ground on the community center in 2004, issuing itself a building permit under its own land use government process and using a $600,000 grant obtained through the Indian Community Development Block Grant program under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In the same year the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling that the tribe had partly waived its sovereignty and was bound to follow state and local zoning laws under the 1983 settlement agreement. Three years later the town and the tribe signed a memorandum of understanding creating a collaborative review process for development projects that recognized the two governments. Using that process, in 2007 the tribe was granted a special permit from the town planning board for the community center.

Building inspector Jerry Weiner also referred the project to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for review as a development of regional impact; the MVC approved the project in November 2007.

Early construction work on the building was done by the U.S. Air Force Reserve. The 6,200-square-foot facility was originally planned as a community center with a gymnasium, stage, locker rooms and kitchen. Future plans for a second phase of building called for a day care center, elder center, classroom and possibly a camp ground.

“The facility would be operated as a gathering place for the tribe and town and would occasionally host functions such as weddings and powwows,” the MVC application stated.

The community center was part of a 1993 master plan for development of tribal lands under town zoning bylaws. In its MVC application, the tribe wrote the community center “is consistent with these prior efforts to forge a healthy and vigorous relationship with local town government.”

But there was not enough money to finish the building, and the plan for its use has now changed. Tribal records obtained by the Gazette show that on May 5 the tribal council reviewed a grant application for an additional $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the building. At a general membership meeting one day later, the tribe voted to approve converting the community center building to a Class II bingo facility. The electrical permit application filed with the town last month requests approval for one dishwasher, 26 switches, 36 light outlets and 40 electrical outlets.

Laura Feldman, a spokesman for HUD, confirmed to the Gazette this week that the tribe submitted a request for a change of use for the community center on May 21. If the change of use is denied, she said the original grant money would need to be repaid to the federal government.

A change of use in the building would also require a return to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for a possible new review, commission DRI coordinator Paul Foley said this week.

Tribal chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

But in a strongly-worded statement issued this week three days after the Lakeville vote, the tribe heaped blame on Governor Patrick and his administration for the negative outcome, calling the July 31 deadline for the casino application unreasonable and accusing the governor of playing favorites with the Mashpee Wampanoags, who are already in negotiations with the administration for a casino license in Taunton.

“The outcome of the nonbinding votes in Freetown and Lakeville was disappointing but not surprising, given the tight state law timeline, the mounting confusion over the state’s process for implementing the gaming law and the uncertainty over what the vote actually means,” the Vineyard tribe said in the statement. “ . . . . during the last few weeks, it has become increasingly clear that the governor’s very public opposition to the Aquinnah tribe has really discouraged voters from going to the polls . . . . The real motivation for the governor’s opposition is still not clear. Although the governor claims that his refusal is based on the alleged surrender by the Aquinnah of our right to conduct gaming in the 1983 Settlement Act, the Department of Interior and independent legal experts all agree that federal case law supports the conclusion that any restrictions in the 1983 Settlement Act were superseded by the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and that the Aquinnah, the first federally recognized Indian tribe in Massachusetts, has as much of a legal right to develop a gaming facility as our more recently recognized relatives.”

The statement concluded in part: “The state should treat both tribes equally and not choose to benefit only one of the federally-recognized tribes over the other. But this is what is happening now . . . The Aquinnah tribe is currently weighing its options and will ultimately take the appropriate steps necessary to protect our rights. We are more determined than ever to pursue a first-class gaming and entertainment enterprise that will provide economic self-sufficiency for tribal members and an economic benefit to the region as a whole.

 

by Remy Tumin