Judge rules against tribe in casino case

Says local permitting process must be followed for building construction.

A federal court judge has sided with the town saying that the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) must get permits for its casino building. - Josephine Brennan

A federal judge has ruled that the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) must adhere to local permits for the construction of its Aquinnah Cliffs casino.

In a ruling issued Wednesday, Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV wrote that the tribe failed to appeal that portion of his ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeals. “The court will therefore enter a final judgment providing that any gaming facility constructed and operated by the tribe on the lands at issue is not subject to state and local laws and regulations concerning gaming,” Saylor wrote. “The judgment will further provide, however, that any such facility is otherwise subject to state and local regulation, including any applicable permitting requirements.”

It was the tribe’s failure to specifically appeal only the portion of Saylor’s ruling having to do with gaming law that led to his decision for final judgment. “If the tribe seeks to construct and operate a gaming facility, it need not comply with state and local gaming laws, but it must comply with all state and local laws and regulations of general applicability to the construction and operation of a commercial building.”

The tribe has contended that under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, they do not have to get local permits for the project to be built on reservation lands in Aquinnah. The tribe started construction, but it halted when the town filed a motion in federal court in April seeking final judgment in the case.

On May 31, the two sides provided oral arguments before Saylor at the John Joseph Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston.

“The court specifically held that while the tribe can game, it is still subject to all state and local laws and regulations to the construction and operation of a commercial building, which means building permits, etc. — that also means the Martha’s Vineyard Commission,” Ronald Rappaport, an attorney for the town, told The Times. “The town is very, very pleased with the result.”

Both Aquinnah and Chilmark referred the casino project to the MVC as a development of regional impact (DRI); the tribe has refused to attend hearings set up by the commission. One is scheduled for Thursday at 7 pm.

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the tribe, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The tribe hopes to open an electronic bingo facility with games that have the look and feel of slot machines.

Jim Newman, a selectman in Aquinnah, said he’s pleased with the result. “I wish it had not come to this, because we tried, I personally tried many times, to sit down and talk to them over this,” he said. “We were not out to stop the casino. I’m sorry this is what it had to come to.”

In court, the tribe and its attorneys argued this was just the latest attempt to block the project.

Newman said that’s not the case. The town wants to sit down with the tribe to better understand the project and what impact it might have on town services.

“In all honesty, [blocking the casino] was never the case on the part of the administration and the selectmen. That was never the intent,” Newman said. “Very shortly after the Supreme Court rejected our appeal, I went and said, ‘How can we work together?’”

Newman doesn’t expect this is the end of the legal battles between the town and the tribe. “No, they’re going to appeal it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the end, I really don’t.”