Voters in Aquinnah Give Strong Backing to Tribe On Cliff Lot Lease Rights

At a special town meeting in Aquinnah Wednesday night, 122 voters, or 37 per cent of all those registered, decided that the town should continue to lease its commercial lots at the cliffs exclusively to Wampanoags.

By a margin of 10 votes, 66 to 56, Article 9 passed. The voters authorized the board of selectmen to grant the Wampanoag Tribal Council of Gay Head (Aquinnah) the right of first refusal to lease the eight lots overlooking the clay cliffs.

Eight previous articles were subject to a vote before discussion on Article 9 began at 8:30 p.m. And opposition, somewhat quiet at last week's public hearing, came out in full force.

Town constable Marvin Joslow acknowledged the passionate speeches and stories from Wampanoags at last week's hearing, but he cautioned the audience that a yes vote meant "eliminating the rest of the town citizens who are not tribal members from ever leasing lots at the cliffs." After the paper ballots were tallied, Mr. Joslow said, "We just gave away the farm."

Legal questions were addressed clearly by Ron Rappaport, dispelling some confusion generated by the 1994 Massachusetts legislation that exempted the cliff lots from the provisions of chapter 30B of the state's general laws. Mr. Rappaport said Article 9 is not amending the law, which the town does not have the authority to do. What 30B does, said Mr. Rappaport, is regulate how the government has to lease and sell property.

Mr. Rappaport said if the board only leased and accepted bids from tribal members, that would be an unconstitutional form of discrimination. But under the law, the town can enter into an agreement with another government agency, and the tribe is recognized as such.

When the two lots opened up this year, selectmen were concerned about a lawsuit against the town for discrimination if they accepted bids only from the tribe.

The exemption of the cliffs in 30B left the audience to speculate what the state had in mind. One possibility was that the state recognized the longstanding tradition of Wampanoags having sole use of the lots. Or, perhaps the state intended every citizen of the town to have a chance to lease a lot. The question was unclear for the selectmen; the exemption had not clarified matters and left some room for legal wrangling.

Racism became the forefront issue prior to the paper ballots. Opponents said Article 9 is discriminatory. "People in town are struggling. I don't want to raise my son in this town knowing he is a second-class citizen because he is not Wampanoag," said Deborah Webb.

A member of the finance committee, Elizabeth Carroll-Broggi, said, "Article 9 is effectively creating two classes of citizens. I am opposed to laws granting privileges based on race. With this article, we are taking many steps backward in time."

Supporters of the article saw no discrimination in bestowing rights of first refusal on the tribe. "We are a little town. Chappaquiddick is doing it now, protecting their town based on social rights and historical rights. In our town, those rights are for Wampanoags. For people who are not Wampanoag, you have rights. Everyone in town has a right to have a home occupation. Many of us do. Racism is alive in this country. We may not want to see it. White people do not have to see it. Some issues are coming up tonight that are very hurtful for me to hear. Do the right thing, back the history, back the culture, back the voices we heard last week at the public hearing," said JoAnn Eccher, who introduced herself as a white woman and a mother of a child of color.

Others dismissed the concept that the lots could be used as a great source of town income. "The lots on the cliffs should not be viewed as an economic resource. Some say bidding will raise the lease prices and then taxes can be lowered. But it's about preserving heritage. If we put it out to bid, we will end up with the same tourist traps as we have across the country," said Russell Smith.

With discussion on Article 9 over, the next chapter in leasing the lots is under way. The selectmen will meet with the Wampanoag land use committee and draft a formal lease agreement with the tribe. Selectman Michael Hebert said the leases are expected to have five-year terms and be leased to the tribe, which in turn will sublease to tribal members.

At the meeting, Article 8 placed another decision before residents that affected the tribe. The article was approved, granting the Wampanoag tribe a right of way and easement over an unbuildable lot owned by the town on Old South Road, at the foot of Church street, for the purpose of access to tribal lands. An amendment was proposed to make the easement nontransferable so that only tribal members could use the roadway. The amendment was voted down after members of the tribe declared that the tribe has no plans to allow non-tribal use of the roadway and there was no need for any stipulations. The board of selectmen will meet to discuss the specifications of the road to be constructed.