Mashpee Tribe Fall River Land Purchase On Hold Due To Legislative Impasse

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By: Brian Kehrl
Published: 08/20/10

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has submitted a new reservation application to the federal government to include plans to build a casino in Fall River, but the land sale agreement between the tribe and the South Coast city is on hold.

The tribe filed an amended application late last month, adding 300 acres on the outskirts of Fall River to the properties in Mashpee and Middleborough the tribe has already filed to place into federal trust. The additional material includes information demonstrating the tribe’s historic and modern ties to the region, prerequisites for the tribe to receive permission to open a casino on the property, according to tribal council Chairman Cedric Cromwell.

But the sale of the proposed resort casino property is on hold because the state Legislature did not pass an expanded gambling bill this summer, according to William G. Kenney, chairman of the Fall River Redevelopment Authority, which owns the land.

Mr. Kenney said this week that the redevelopment authority board approved by a three-to-two vote to sign an option to sell the property for $21 million, but he has not signed the document due to restrictions based on legislative action.

“I have a pen in my hand, I have no authority to sign it,” Mr. Kenney said.

Mr. Kenney said the approval technically lasts only until the end of the year. So unless the legislature comes back into session to take action on the bill, which is stalled due to a disagreement over including slots at the racetracks between Governor Deval L. Patrick and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, the land sale will have to be renegotiated and reauthorized.

“We are in a holding pattern, but we can’t hold forever,” Mr. Kenney said.

The project has the full support of Fall River Mayor William Flanagan, but according to reports in the Fall River News-Herald, a city councilor has also questioned the process by which the redevelopment board agreed to sell the land to the tribe.

City Council Vice President Linda Pereira echoed concerns raised by opponents of the project during hearings on it, questioning whether it violated state laws by agreeing to sell the land to the tribe without opening the project to bids from other parties.

Mr. Cromwell, however, said he continues to work closely with Mr. Flanagan and other Fall River representatives on the initial deal. “January is still a long time away,” Mr. Cromwell said.

But if the state Legislature does not approve casinos, the tribe will eventually establish a reservation on which it can offer some gaming, a possibility he said he has discussed with city officials.

The tribe’s reservation application has been stalled since February 2009, when the US Supreme Court issued a decision, known as the Carcieri ruling, limiting the federal government’s ability to create reservations for tribes like the Mashpee Wampanoag that were recognized after 1934.

Mr. Cromwell, though, said there has been some traction recently on bills in Congress to address the Carcieri ruling, including support from US Representative William D. Delahunt (D-Quincy), who signed on as a co-sponsor to a bill in late July.

Rep. Delahunt is one of 42 co-sponsors to the bill, according to the online Congressional database.

A companion bill in the US Senate has passed the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and has 10 co-sponsors, but has not been brought before the full senate.

Mr. Cromwell said the tribe is also working on amendments to the reservation application that will directly address the Carcieri decision. He declined to provide details on the tribe’s case for exemption from the ruling, saying it could provide ammunition to opponents of the tribe’s efforts.

The decision effectively prevents the federal Department of Interior from taking land into trust for tribes “not under federal jurisdiction” in 1934, a category thought to include recognized tribes and tribes that had established relationships with the federal government.

The Mashpee tribe was recognized by the state government at the time, and had an extensive relationship with the state and colonial governments going back to the 17th century. But historians have said the tribe had little formal contact with the federal government.

Mr. Cromwell said the tribe’s amended application to include the Fall River land in the tribe’s initial reservation notes the broad reach of the Wampanoag Nation from what is now the Upper Cape down to northern Rhode Island.

Mr. Cromwell said there is a significant number of tribe members now living in the Fall River area.

The tribe’s spokesman declined requests this week for copies of the amended application; a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs did not return several messages requesting information on the application.

Mr. Cromwell said the Mashpee and Middleborough properties are still included in the reservation application, but Middleborough is no longer listed as a gaming site.

“We have communicated with the town of Middleborough that we would like to find a mutually beneficial use for the land,” Mr. Cromwell said, declining to elaborate further.

He said Middleborough selectmen, who have pledged to fight the tribe backing out of its deal to open a casino there, have initiated the conflict resolution process laid out in an intergovernmental agreement between the tribe and the town. Representatives of the two governments have been meeting to work out their differences, Mr. Cromwell said.

“All I can say is that we have been in discussion with them and we are happy to be talking with them,” Mr. Cromwell said.

Two Middleborough selectmen reached by telephone this week declined to comment on the dispute resolution process.

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