Aquinnah flies through socially distanced town meeting

Past expenses for litigation between town and tribe spark debate.

Aquinnah selectman Juli Vanderhoop, shown here at town meeting earlier this year, says town hall is now by appointment only because of a spike in cases on the Island. - Lucas Thors

Aquinnah breezed through annual town meeting on Tuesday, approving an approximately $5 million budget and discussing legal expenses related to litigation between the town and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

The town meeting was held in front of the Aquinnah fire department building, with chairs spread around the dirt parking lot at the appropriate distance. Town officials sat directly in front of the bay doors.

Because town moderator Mike Hebert was not in attendance, selectmen nominated Sarah Thulin as the temporary moderator, which voters unanimously accepted. The quorum for the meeting was 38, and 55 voters were in attendance.

The only article that sparked any discussion during the meeting related to the transfer of $125,000 from the town’s stabilization fund into the legal expenditures budget to pay for litigation between the town and the tribe. The two parties have been involved in a legal battle where the town was attempting to force the tribe to conform with town zoning and associated permits in the construction of its Class II Indian casino. 

A federal judge ruled in favor of the town and is requiring the tribe to conform to local permitting procedures — a decision the tribe is currently appealing in the First Circuit Court.

Sarah Saltonstall said “some people are tired of fighting the tribe,” and tribe member Carole Vandal vehemently opposed any more litigation against the Wampanoag Tribe. 

“Suing the tribe is crazy. I am not necessarily for the casino. But our lands are finally being changed for the original people here, for us,” Vandal said. “I agree there needs to be more communication [between the tribe and the town].”

Juli Vanderhoop, chair of the board of selectmen and a tribe member, said the selectmen and town officials have tried to communicate with the tribe “on many occasions,” and work with them to find an amicable solution for both parties. 

“I know we can do better if we just communicate. This legal bill is about getting answers and working forward to find a solution,” Vanderhoop said.

Selectman Jim Newman said that at no point was the town opposed to the casino, and the town was just trying to work with the tribe to get answers regarding public safety and other pertinent issues.

Town counsel Ron Rappaport clarified that the transfer of funds is to cover already-due legal expenditures to pay the Goodwin Procter law firm that has been working with the town.

He said the judge has already received an extensive brief on the case between the town and the tribe, and does not anticipate any more legal appropriations regarding this case.

In other town business, townspeople voted to raise and appropriate approximately $40,000 to satisfy regional service agreements with Dukes County, and to cover the county shortfall for this past fiscal year.

An article relating to extensive historic preservation initiatives in town was also unanimously approved by voters. This article includes the appropriation of $40,000 from reserved Community Preservation revenues for continued restoration of the Gay Head Light, along with additional appropriations for signage at the light.

Community housing efforts were also on the warrant, including approximately $24,000 from existing Community Preservation funds to pay the final mortgage payment for the affordable housing property at Smalley’s Knoll on State Road, and $20,000 for costs related to affordable housing developments as proposed by Harbor Homes.

Another $34,000 will be allocated from preservation funds for the subsidy of affordable housing in Aquinnah through emergency housing programs.

The socially distanced meeting saw 55 attendees, with a quorum of 38. – Lucas Thors

Voters also approved approximately $66,000 from Community Preservation revenues for capital improvements at the Aquinnah Circle. Another $27,000 was transferred from the Capital Building and Grounds Improvement Fund to pay for improvements to the town-operated public restrooms at the Aquinnah Cliffs.

Aquinnah approved its $29,000 share of upgrades and maintenance for the Dukes County Regional Emergency Communications System.