Neighbors Plead For Information On Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Building Plans

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By: Geoff Spillane
Published: 10/28/11

A group of homeowners and concerned residents along Great Neck Road South have reached out to the Mashpee Town Manager, Mashpee Board of Selectmen, and a former United States congressman to seek assistance in developing a two-way community dialogue with the neighboring Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

In a letter sent to Town Manager Joyce M. Mason, Stephen A. Ide of The Punkhorn Point Home Owners and Associates expressed concern about the lack of information that has been provided to neighbors regarding the tribe’s plans for its 55-acre property on Great Neck Road South.

“As abutters to the Wampanoag Tribe’s land on Great Neck Road South, we have growing concerns about the status and proposed use of their 55 acres of land and the absence of oversight to proposed developments there. As was the case with the trailers suddenly appearing, abutters weren’t notified of the huge community center which is going to be built on the tribe’s land. The news was delivered to the taxpayers via a newspaper article!,” Mr. Ide wrote in the letter.

Last month, the tribe signed a $12.7 million loan from the federal government to build a 40,000-square-foot administration building on the property. The building will house the tribe’s administrative offices, health clinic, the tribal court, a gymnasium, a library, a function hall, and a lounge for tribal elders. The project was first announced in 2010, and construction is expected to begin in spring 2012.

In the letter, the neighbors requested that there be transparency between the tribe and the community during the building process, and also inquired about the tribe’s sovereignty and how it would affect the local zoning and permitting processes. In addition, the community group expressed concern over health and safety issues including tracking of medical waste, septic system installation, gradient water flow, increased traffic, and whether there would be oversight of the project to ensure the building is constructed in compliance with state and local safety codes.

Friction between the tribe and its neighbors arose earlier this year when a cluster of blue modular buildings housing medical offices were erected on the property.

The letter was received by the board of selectmen and delivered to the tribe by Mark Forest of The Delahunt Group, a public policy consulting group led by former congressman William D. Delahunt. The tribe retained the services of The Delahunt Group earlier this year to represent its interests on the state and federal levels.

Mr. Ide said he used The Delahunt Group as an intermediary because the community group never received any formal response to several attempts to discuss its concerns about the modular buildings or trailers. He also said that any time the group reached out to tribe members, it received a vitriolic response. “There was nothing conciliatory about it. We were told that we were just guests on their land,” he said.

In an interview earlier this week, Mr. Ide stressed that he has always been a supporter of Native American rights, and that the community group only wants communication and cooperation. “We are not trying to stop anything,” he said.

The Town’s Response
At the request of Ms. Mason, Mashpee Town Counsel Patrick J. Costello reviewed the letter and provided an in-depth response to each of the questions and concerns.

The response states that the Mashpee Wampanoag is a sovereign entity, but is not completely exempt from local taxation or land use regulation unless the land is accepted into trust by the federal government, thereby becoming a reservation. An application to have several parcels of land, including the Great Neck Road South property, taken into trust by the federal government is currently pending before the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“In my opinion, the Mashpee Wampanoag Community Center Project would, at this time, not be exempt from state and local building and zoning restrictions. Accordingly, when the Tribe intends to commence construction of the project, it would have to apply for appropriate permits from the Mashpee Building Inspector and other boards and agencies, as applicable,” Mr. Costello wrote.

However, because the tribal council is a governmental agency, the project is allowed on residentially zoned land, he wrote. Mashpee zoning bylaws include a “by right” provision for government buildings.

“Generally, the [town Zoning Board of Appeals] will only become involved in the permitting process if a request for a variance from dimensional regulations was sought, which, given the large area of land available to the Tribe on the subject property for location and construction of the Community Center Project, is unlikely,” Mr. Costello write.

Addressing the concerns as to why abutters have not been notified of the planned construction, Mr. Costello cites Massachusetts laws that state that governmental buildings are allowed “as of right” in all zoning districts. Plans could, however, as a courtesy, be shared with abutters, but it is not required.

The letter also assured neighbors that septic systems, medical waste disposal, increased traffic, and emergency response issues would all be regulated and governed by applicable Massachusetts general laws and state and local public health regulations.

According to Mr. Costello, at this time no determination has been made as to whether the proposed project would be exempt from Cape Cod Commission review and approval. Paul Niedzwiecki, executive director of the Cape Cod Commission, said this is a unique situation that will have to be evaluated once plans are presented.

The Tribe’s Response
The tribe issued the following statement in response to the letter:

“The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has long enjoyed a strong government to government relationship with the Town of Mashpee, and we work hand in hand with the town to assure good communication and compliance with appropriate regulations. While the Tribe is a sovereign government with specific rights regarding the use of our land, we take pride in being a good neighbor, and it’s unfortunate that there was missed communication with Mr. Ide. We look forward to meeting with him and our neighbors.”

As of press time, the meeting between the tribe and its neighbors had not yet been scheduled.

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