Aquinnah Cliffs lots: ‘It stays in tribal lands’

Select board takes steps to work out lease details with business owners and tribe.

The lease details of Aquinnah Cliff lots are being worked out. — Eunki Seonwoo

The Aquinnah select board reached a consensus to have a final draft of the leases for lots on Aquinnah Cliffs by January during a Tuesday afternoon meeting. 

The board had two leases, one for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and another for individual leaseholders, who are also tribal members. However, a tribe council representative was unable to attend the meeting. 

Leaseholder Martha Vanderhoop wanted more time to develop the leases, both for individuals and the tribe, pointing out that board chair Juli Vanderhoop and member Gary Haley expressed a desire for “more consistency.” 

“A suggestion of mine would be to maybe take a pause and extend all of the leases for a year, and within that one-year period to really take the time to look at all of the options before us for the Cliff area, and use that time to make a thoughtful, [reasonable] decision about the future of the Cliffs,” Martha Vanderhoop said. “I don’t see how we can do this in this expedited timeline.” 

Juli Vanderhoop later clarified the board was not rushing the process. 

“We waited for this time so that everybody could gather here, to hear whether you’re happy with your lease,” she said, referring to both individuals and the tribe. 

However, there are some limits to the board’s decisionmaking power without town counsel, according to Juli Vanderhoop. “Basically, we’re here to hear about your leases and direct us to what is going to be some of the solutions to correcting this old lease,” she said. 

While protecting their businesses was on the leaseholders’ minds, another factor was the preservation of Aquinnah Cliffs as tribal land, which the town’s residents had voted to do. 

“A priority of mine is protecting that right that it stays in tribal lands,” Martha Vanderhoop said, adding that the current lease does not protect that right. 

Leaseholder Kristina Hook remembered 20 years ago “fighting for the lots to stay in tribal lands.” Although a lot has changed over two decades, no matter what form the new leases take, “there’s got to be equity.”

“We as tribal people have lived here thousands of years dealing with each other with respect and equity,” Hook said. “If we could take this time to figure out how to do that, it might be feeling less aggressive, less anxiety-ridden. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Hook continued by saying Aquinnah Wampanoag people want to show they are still on the Island, and share their culture while working with the town. “We have no other choice, and it doesn’t have to be aggressive,” Hook said. 

Board member Tom Murphy said because leases expire at different times and with different terms, it created a messy situation. However, the fact “the lots are indigenous” is unquestionable. Murphy said getting everyone on the same page will be needed. 

Murphy also assured that people won’t need to worry about being evicted for expired leases, because they count as tenants at sufferance. Aquinnah town administrator Jeffrey Madison clarified that this would last for a year from the date the lease expired. Many of the leases expired in June. 

Additionally, Madison said, there are details that need to be discussed with the tribe. Madison said the option of just extending the leases is also difficult because the Cliff area has issues that need addressing, such as better compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and how to pursue it. 

After more discussion, Murphy suggested organizing a working group consisting of lot owners to go through the lease details to work with the town. 

“Hopefully we’ll have somewhat of a final draft to go to town counsel in the beginning of the year,” Juli Vanderhoop said, hoping to finish the lease details during the off-season. 

“It may be the off-season, but January, February, March is when you’re buying inventory,” leaseholder Berta Welch said. 

“January would be very nice to have something in hand that really counts,” Juli Vanderhoop replied. 

Murphy said he thinks this could be done in the next 60 days.