Wampanoag Tribe doubles down on Martha’s Vineyard casino

The entry page of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe's new gaming website features casino gambling scenes.

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) has again raised the prospect of a casino on tribal lands on Martha’s Vineyard. The notion of a slot parlor overlooking the Gay Head Cliffs was tucked into a website the tribe unveiled last week to promote its mainland casino bid.

The prospect of a casino on Martha’s Vineyard was enough to generate headlines. Although there are no plans as yet, town leaders said not so fast.

Ron Rappaport, longtime Aquinnah town counsel, said the Tribe is bound by town zoning laws and those laws do not allow the construction and operation of a casino. Mr. Rappaport told The Times in a telephone conversation Tuesday that Jim Newman, the chairman of the Aquinnah board of selectmen, has requested that he draft an opinion supporting that view.

“I am in the process of drafting it, but it is safe to say that will be my conclusion,” Mr. Rappaport said.

The three-member board of selectmen includes two members of the Wampanoag Tribe, Spencer Booker and Beverly Wright, who is a member of the tribal council and former tribal chairman.

Considering options

“Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corporation launches website to share information with towns and public in advance of casino referenda,” read the title of a press release emailed out on April 12 by Slowey/McManus Communications, the Tribe’s Boston public relations firm.

The website www.AquinnahGaming.com targets voters in the communities of Freetown, Lakeville, and Fall River. “We are eager to provide as much information as possible and answer questions that residents of potential host communities might have,” Tribe chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said. “Our commitment is to be open and accessible about our plans. This new website will give people information about our Tribe and our history, as well as where the sites are located.”

But the attention grabber was the last question and answer listed under a section titled “frequently asked questions.”

The question, “Would you build a casino on Martha’s Vineyard?” provides the following answer: “The Tribe currently holds land in trust on Martha’s Vineyard for economic development and we would consider that option. There is no legal impediment for us to open a casino on our trust land. Martha’s Vineyard is a very popular tourist destination that could certainly support a smaller-scale casino.”

If readers thought that the headlines that appeared in newspapers and on websites from Boston to Edgartown sounded familiar, they were correct.

In June 2010, as lawmakers prepared to take action on casino legislation, Naomi Carney, Aquinnah Wampanoag gaming corporation chairman, and her sister, Ms. Andrews-Maltais, held a press conference and said they would construct a gaming facility on their 450 acres on Martha’s Vineyard if the tribe did not receive a state gambling license under the proposed law.

The suggestion of a casino on Martha’s Vineyard generated headlines, but it had little effect on the gaming gamesmanship and barely raised a stir on Martha’s Vineyard. That appeared to be the case last week.

Setting aside the logistics of operating a casino in the westernmost part of the Island at the end of a roadway already crowded with summer visitors, the Tribe would face legal challenges rooted in the 1983 settlement agreement that led to federal recognition and states that the settlement lands — land in Aquinnah (then Gay Head) owned or controlled by the tribe — are 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.

In the winter of 2001, the tribe erected a small shed on land known as the Cook property without a town building permit. In December 2004, the state’s highest court ruled that the tribe was not immune from zoning enforcement despite its federal recognition and its claim of sovereign immunity.

Mr. Rappaport has been on the front lines of defending the settlement agreement. In a telephone conversation Tuesday, he spoke to the issue of a Vineyard casino.

“The settlement agreement reached with the Tribe clearly subjected these lands, which were the Strock lands, to town zoning, and the state Supreme Court decision in 2004 held that the Tribe waived its sovereign immunity with respect to land use issues in the town,” he said. “And there is nothing in the zoning regulations covered by the settlement agreement which would authorize the construction and operation of a casino.”

Race for roulette

The Aquinnah Wampanoag are engaged in a pitched battle to overtake the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in the race to the casino license finish line in Massachusetts.

At the same time, the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe based in Fall River, which is seeking federal recognition, is battling with the Mashpee tribe over its claim to historical roots in Taunton. Pocasset Tribal Chairman George Spring Buffalo recently suggested that the state’s Native Americans collectively pursue a casino. The Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes have rejected the notion of a cooperative venture.

The casino bill that Gov. Deval Patrick signed last year permits up to three casinos in Massachusetts, with the southeastern region license temporarily reserved for a federally recognized tribe.

Local approval is a requirement of the law that provides the only two federally recognized tribes in the state with a head start before the process is thrown open to a commercial casino developer on July 31.

Federal law requires states that allow gaming to negotiate gaming agreements with federally recognized tribes and gives broad rights to those tribes to construct gambling facilities on lands held “in trust” for those tribes by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Unlike the Mashpee tribe, the Aquinnah tribe owns land held in trust, but it is on the Vineyard.

In a letter dated March 5, also posted on the website, the Aquinnah tribe asked Governor Patrick to begin the process of negotiating an agreement, a precursor to any Island casino.

Native stewards

Whatever the Aquinnah tribe plans might be for Martha’s Vineyard, the focus now is the mainland. The tribe’s efforts are directed by the tribe’s gaming corporation, authorized by the tribal council to represent the tribe in all gaming decisions. Other than Ms. Andrews-Maltais, an Edgartown resident, four of the five members of the corporation live in the New Bedford area.

The Aquinnah gaming website features casino images and emphasizes the tribe’s ancestral roots.

Under the heading, “About Us,” the website states, “The ancestors of the Aquinnah Wampanoag have been located in and around the Southeastern Massachusetts region since time immemorial and have remained steadfast in their position as stewards of the lands and resources that have nurtured our survival.”

Under the heading, “Community Impact,” the website states, “The advancement of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head’s (Aquinnah) gaming opportunity will be one of the greatest economic catalysts to impact southeastern Massachusetts in recent history …

“The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) has a long history as a responsible and respectful neighbor and friend. The Tribe continually strives to ensure that the interests of not only its tribal members, but those of the surrounding community are appropriately acknowledged and responsibly addressed. The advancement of the Tribe’s gaming interests are foundationally grounded in this same philosophy and it is the Tribe’s intent to honor and respect the concerns of community members to ensure that a long, prosperous and symbiotic relationship between the Tribe and the host community can be advanced.”