The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) has officially broken ground on a long-promised gambling facility in the small up-Island town, unleashing a flurry of concern from Island residents and the threat of possible legal action on more than one side.

Former Wiener property has been the site of heavy equipment all week. — Albert O. Fischer 3rd

And as heavy equipment rumbled across tribal land off State Road amid massive clear cutting and stump removal, in a testy exchange of letters Wampanoag chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais repeatedly warned the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and town leaders not to interfere.

“Please be advised that any repeated effort by the town to stop the tribe’s gaming operation will be countered with an aggressive legal defense by the tribe,” Ms. Andrew-Maltais wrote in a Feb. 22 letter to the Aquinnah selectmen.

Over a period of six days, five letters were exchanged between the tribe, the town and the commission over the bingo hall.

The latest, hand delivered to the tribe from the MVC on Monday this week proposing a meeting between the commission and the tribe, prompted a response from Ms. Andrews-Maltais calling it “a disingenuous overture” and directing all further communications to be sent to the tribe’s attorneys.

Commission chairman Douglas Sederholm said Wednesday that the MVC remains willing to meet with members of the tribe and is open to “all possible options.”

The tribe was cleared to build the bingo hall by the U.S. Supreme Court late last year when it refused to hear the town’s petition for review of a ruling by the U.S. Appeals Court for the First Circuit. That ruling affirmed the sovereign rights of the Wampanoags to pursue gaming on tribal lands.

Though work on the site was apparent a week ago, the start of construction on the class two bingo hall was formally announced by the tribe in a press release that went out Saturday night.

“We remain committed to bringing positive economic development to our tribe, the town of Aquinnah and our neighbors in the larger Island community,” the statement said in part. “We bring to life the vision for this entertainment experience.”

Among other things, the announcement confirmed that the plan includes a 10,000-square-foot facility to house 250 electronic gaming machines, a beer and wine bar, outdoor seating and food trucks. Once it is up and operating, the casino will employ about 100 full and part-time workers, the announcement also said. Williams Building Co. of Hyannis is the general contractor.

Gravel drive leading to property from State Road has been closed off. — Noah Asimow

The tribe had previously announced its partnership with Global Gaming Solutions, a business entity of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, to develop the project.

In the last week, an excavator and dump trucks have cleared oak trees and razed an old house on the 4.1-acre former Wiener property at 20 Black Brook Road. The tribe bought the property five years ago for $1.1 million, and the federal government accepted it into trust in early 2018.

The land is a mixture of forest and wetlands nestled between Black Brook and State Roads, with a stone wall running along one side. A gravel driveway connecting the property to State Road has been cordoned off with fencing and signs, including no trespassing signs.

According to the press release, construction on the bingo hall itself is set to begin in March and expected to take about six months to complete.

Last month both the Aquinnah and Chilmark selectman asked the MVC to review the bingo hall as a development of regional impact.

The requests triggered an exchange of letters with the tribe that Ms. Andrews-Maltais made public at the same time the press release went out Saturday.

The first was a letter hand delivered to Ms. Andrews-Maltais on Feb. 20 from MVC executive director Adam Turner, notifying her of the referrals from the two towns and requesting a meeting on Feb. 25.

“We trust that as the representatives of the original Islanders you share our desire to preserve the unique values of the Vineyard,” the letter said in part. “Regardless of political boundaries we are one Island.”

Responding by letter on Friday, Feb. 22, Ms. Andrews-Maltais said the commission lacks jurisdiction to review the project. She pointed to the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

“If the MVC embraces that court decision and acknowledges that the MVC lacks jurisdiction over the gaming project, the tribe is more than happy to engage in a government-to-government dialogue,” Ms. Andrews-Maltais wrote. She said while the tribe had been unaware of Chilmark’s referral to the commission, she strongly criticized Aquinnah for seeking MVC review of the bingo hall. “It is unfortunate that the town has involved the MVC (and now the town of Chilmark) in an attempt to further the town’s longstanding agenda of interference with the tribe’s exercise of its rights under federal law to have a gaming facility on its tribal lands on the Island,” Ms. Andrews-Maltais wrote.

In an even more sharply worded letter sent to the Aquinnah selectmen Friday, Ms. Andrews-Maltais demanded that the town withdraw its letter to the MVC or face severed ties and legal action.

Signs warn off trespassers. — Nelson Sigelman

“Even after losing in the highest court in the land (at no small monetary cost to all parties), the town now seeks to do what it now knows cannot be done directly,” she wrote. “Therefore, unless the town withdraws its letter to the MVC and acknowledges that the towns lacks jurisdiction over all the matters integral to the tribe’s gaming operation, the tribe will no longer engage in discussions with the town on gaming matters whatsoever.

“It is truly unfortunate that it has come to this.”

The back-and-forth exchange of letters continued into this week.

Ms. Andrew-Maltais did not respond to requests from the Gazette seeking comment.

Aquinnah selectmen were all away; this is school vacation week on the Island.  On Friday morning a notice went out that the selectmen will hold a meeting on Tuesday at 8 a.m. The agenda includes the signing of a letter to the tribe, expected to take place in public, and an executive session to discuss “tribal casino action.”

Mr. Sederholm said the most recent correspondence relayed to the tribe suggests the commission would be willing to meet in private and not on condition that the tribe halt construction, although that letter has not been made public.

Meanwhile, the visible start of construction in the remote reaches of Aquinnah began to spark reaction.

Aquinnah town administrator Jeffrey Madison said he had received phone calls from concerned residents about the developments. He also expressed concern about the presence of debris and ice on the road near the project.

Mr. Madison, a member the tribe who spearheaded efforts in the 1990s to develop a casino on the mainland, said he believes a bingo hall in Aquinnah has little support among Islanders.

He said the tribe has about 1,500 members, with about a third of them living on Island.

“I don’t know what residents who live on tribal lands think, but people of my generation, who have longstanding roots in the community, do not support this project,” Mr. Madison said.

Wampanoag tribal elder and Aquinnah resident Buddy Vanderhoop had even stronger feelings.

“You can’t fix stupid,” Mr. Vanderhoop said. “This is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen happen. It’s really, really a travesty . . . I’ve lived here my whole life, and most of the people involved are off in New Bedford. This is not New Bedford. This is my backyard.”

See The Road to Casino Gambling, a timeline of the Aquinnah tribe's efforts to win approval over many years for a casino in Massachusetts.