An annual forum for summer taxpayers in Aquinnah turned quickly into a light grill session for two town selectmen this week about plans by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) to bring some kind of casino gambling onto tribal lands in the smallest town on the Vineyard.
Summer residents asked the selectmen why they had not engaged in more open dialogue with the tribe.
“I’m very curious as to why the tribe did not approach the town about this,” said Aquinnah resident John Brett-Smith, who has been coming to the Vineyard for 50 years. “Why didn’t the tribe talk to the town about this? Why was it something sprung on the town and everyone else? I realize there’s a new administration at the tribe but I find it curious and disturbing.”
The meeting was held at the Aquinnah town hall on Tuesday night. About 20 summer taxpayers attended.
The tribe announced plans early this year to convert its unfinished community center on tribal land in Aquinnah to a bingo hall, as it moved on other fronts to win a license to build a casino in southeastern Massachusetts. The casino plan was thwarted last month after Gov. Deval Patrick signed a compact with the Mashpee Wampanoags to allow that tribe to build a $500 million resort casino in Taunton. The compact still needs approval at the federal level. The Aquinnah Wampanogs have said they plan to file a lawsuit in federal court after Labor Day challenging the governor’s position.
Meanwhile, the tribe has continued to move quietly in apparent preparations for the previously announced plan to convert the community center to a Class Two bingo hall. On August 4 building inspector Lenoard Jason Jr. issued a new building permit to the tribe for finishing interior work at the community center. (Mr. Jason has been appointed acting building inspector in the matter because town inspector Jerry Weiner is an abutter to the center).
On Tuesday night both selectmen who attended assured summer taxpayers that the board is actively monitoring the situation.
“I look at it as a game of chess and in that matter it’s their move,” said selectman and board chairman Spencer Booker, who is also a member of the tribe. “From the town’s point of view, I’ve personally taken the view of waiting for the tribe to come to us . . . as it stands now, they have not come to the town for a change of use permit, meaning right now the building they have there is still considered a community center, so we’re still treating it as a community center,” he said. He continued: “There will be a time when the tribe will have to come to the town for a change of use permit and to the [Martha’s Vineyard Commission] for a change of use permit, and when that time comes is when we will have some serious dialogue.”
Selectman Beverly Wright, who is also a member of the tribe, concurred with Mr. Booker, saying that the town and the tribe are “going down two parallel lines,” and “until one crosses the other one . . . then there is nothing for us to do.”
Selectman Jim Newman did not attend the meeting.
Mr. Brett-Smith asked if the town had reached out to the tribe, and Ms. Wright replied that neither party has reached out to the other.
“The town has not reached out to the tribe and tribe has not reached out to the town . . . there has not been any communication,” she said, noting that an opinion requested by the board from town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport is “as far as it has gone.” In the April opinion, Mr. Rappaport said the tribe cannot build a casino on tribal lands due to a 1983 land claims settlement agreement the tribe signed with the town. Governor Patrick cited the same agreement as his reason for refusing to negotiate with the tribe for a state compact. The tribe believes the settlement agreement is superseded by the federal Indian Gaming Regulation Act, and the issue is expected to eventually be decided in court.
On Tuesday night Aquinnah summer taxpayer Arnold Zack agreed with the two selectmen, saying that the tribe has not taken any action “that demands the town respond to any action for any authorization that might be in violation of local zoning.”
But Mr. Brett-Smith continued to press his point.
“I find it very upsetting . . . this is the same dynamic that’s been going on for decades between the town and the tribe; they don’t communicate,” he said. “It just seems to me that both sides should be talking to each other and I’m curious as to why the tribe hasn’t approached the town or is it too much of a hot potato? You just have to have a conversation about what’s going on.”
Mr. Zack replied: “The fact is there’s nothing that is provoking anything at this point and we have the law on our side and if they want to bring about any changes . . . it’s their initiative,” he said.
Steering the discussion away from casino gambling, Mr. Booker told the gathering that the tribe and the town have worked well together, pointing as an example to the recent grounding of an offshore lobster boat on a remote beach and the “pivotal role” played by the tribe’s natural resources department to help avoid an oil spill as the boat was freed.
“To have any of that oil spill onto the beach was tantamount to a catastrophe,” Mr. Booker said. “We do work well with the tribe on other aspects and communication is good.”
Aquinnah summer taxpayer Cora Weiss said the town and tribe should try to foster an environment of togetherness.
“It doesn’t matter to me if there’s anything legal or illegal going on,” she said. “We’ve been living together for a long time. Maybe some of those parties we used to have should happen again.”