MVC begins public hearing for Aquinnah casino

With no information and no applicant, MVC pushes hearing forward two weeks.

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Aquinnah town administrator Jeff Madison respects the tribe's right to build a gaming facility, but wants to see the tribe work with the town and the MVC. — Brian Dowd

With plenty of questions, but no answers about the gambling facility proposed by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) decided to push the project’s public hearing forward to June 20.

At Thursday’s meeting, chairman Douglas Sederholm echoed executive director Adam Turner’s comments from the Land Use Planning Committee (LUPC) meeting Monday, which tribal members did not attend, that the commission is only looking at impacts — not the gambling facility. “We do not contest their right to conduct a Class II gaming operation,” Sederholm said.

The tribe and the MVC held a meeting on March 13 to discuss traffic, drainage, housing, and other impacts a gambling facility would have in Aquinnah. The two groups planned to meet again, but in a May 18 letter, Scott Crowell, a lawyer for the tribe, told Turner that due to litigation filed by the town of Aquinnah, the tribe would be unable to continue dialogue with the MVC.

“It is with great frustration that we write to inform you that the pending litigation filed by the town of Aquinnah against the tribe cripples their efforts to continue our dialogue regarding the Class II gaming facility,” Crowell wrote. “We urge the commission to hold off on proceeding until after Judge Saylor has issued his ruling on the town’s motion.”

The tribe and Aquinnah had their hearing on May 31 before Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV, who made no decision and took the case under advisement.

In Turner’s presentation to the commission Thursday night, he detailed the sparse information he had about the project. He said the building will be a 10,000-square-foot sprung construction structure, with more than 100 year-round employees, and an annual payroll of $2.5 million. The entry and exit will not be on State Road, and construction is planned to wrap up in fall 2019.

Beyond that information, which Turner said could change, there are countless unknowns. The hours of operation, wastewater, parking, traffic, and public safety are a few of the items about which the commission has no information.

Some of the commissioners were concerned the information Turner presented and put up on the MVC website would confuse the public. Turner said he would make it clear the information is just background, and is subject to change.

“We do not have sufficient information to either condition this or approve it, or do anything with it at this time. And we have to decide what to do, since we have an entity that has stated publicly that it intends to proceed without requesting any permits from the town or approval from the MVC,” Sederholm said.

Since no representative from the tribe showed up, the commission went to public comment. The only person to speak was Aquinnah town administrator Jeff Madison. Madison detailed his unique position as a member of the tribe, a leader in the Aquinnah government, a person who was raised in Aquinnah, and a lawyer, but said he came before the MVC as a representative of the town.

“The town of Aquinnah has no objection to the tribe proceeding with the development of a Class II gaming facility on its lands in Aquinnah. That’s settled law,” Madison said. “We have not received any information on what the tribe is doing.” Madison said the town is in the dark on the tribe’s plans, but he did speak to some of the construction he has seen, asking that public safety and environmental impacts be discussed. “There were giant dump trucks that denuded the four acres, stripped it of I guess any topsoil there. Cut down 300-year-old, had to be 300-year-old, trees, huge trees, ripped them out, tore down a building and carted them down a one-lane road,” Madison said. The trucks went down Church Street and tore up the road, he said. “Thank God one of these children who live on either side of that one-lane road … were not injured.”

“When something happens — and something will happen — it may just be a fender-bender, but who’s going to answer that call? … How are we going to do it?” Madision said. “Maybe there will be a fire. Who’s going to answer that call? The Aquinnah fire department, the Chilmark fire department, West Tisbury with mutual aid? We don’t know.”

Madison also said he’s been around long enough to have been a part of the tribe’s pursuit of a casino off-Island, which never materialized. “I don’t want to be party to stopping my people from doing what they have every right to do,” Madison said. “I don’t want to regret that participation in what I think can be great things over the years for my people. My soul is crying when I see the actions that they’ve taken in disregarding [the MVC] and especially the Gay Head community.”

“I believe strongly in the words that I speak. I believe strongly in Native American rights. I believe strongly that the tribe is sovereign,” Madison said. “We don’t want this here, but the tribe has a right to do it here. All we ask is that it be done appropriately.”

Commissioner Trip Barnes originally thought the commission should stay out of the tribe’s way, but after hearing Madison speak he changed his mind. Aside from Madison’s comments, Barnes said the commission was wasting its time discussing the project since there isn’t any concrete information or a representative from the tribe. He said they should wait to see if anything comes in. Others agreed.

“We’re not going to get any answers here tonight,” commissioner Josh Goldstein said.

Commissioners decided that if any construction continues or an application from the tribe comes in they will address it, otherwise they will wait two weeks and bring it to a decision. The commission can deny the project without prejudice, which would allow the tribe to reapply.

Turner said he hopes pushing the hearing to June 20 will give the tribe time and lead to more discussion with the MVC.

“I didn’t relish having this hearing, it was very difficult, but we didn’t have much that we could have done,” Turner said.

In other business, the hearing for the 54-acre, 34-lot subdivision in Edgartown was continued to July 11.