Judge Allows Local Officials To Weigh In On Impact From Martha’s Vineyard Tribal Casino

Posted on: June 21, 2019, 09:39h. 

Last updated on: June 21, 2019, 10:11h.

The town of Aquinnah, Massachusetts won a limited legal victory this week after Boston federal Judge Dennis Saylor IV ruled the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head is subject to permitting from the town on the building of a bingo hall on Martha’s Vineyard.

Land was cleared in February for a tribal bingo hall in Aquinnah, Massachusetts but the stalled project may face further delays after a federal judge said the project is subject to local permitting. (Image: Mark Alan Lovewell/vineyardgazette.com)

All sides appear to agree that the tribe can operate the bingo hall. Disagreement arises on the need for local permits for the gaming venue.

Legal Technicality Key in Ruling

In a technical point of law, Saylor’s new ruling requires the tribe to comply with the local and state permitting process but not comply with local and state laws on gaming.

“If the tribe seeks to construct and operate a gaming facility, it need not comply with state and local gaming laws, but it must comply with all state and local laws and regulations of general applicability to the construction and operation of a commercial building,” Saylor explained in a memo.

Initially, Saylor in 2015 ruled against the tribe, saying it gave up sovereign rights when signing a settlement agreement in 1983. In 2017, the First Circuit Court of Appeals rejected much of Saylor’s ruling — and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 chose not to review the case.

Saylor explained the tribe could have appealed to the First Circuit portions of his judgment “that provided that it must comply with state and local permitting and other regulatory requirements. Instead, it only appealed those portions addressing gaming issues.”

The First Circuit also asked Saylor to issue a final  judgement. He did that on Wednesday.

Saylor’s new decision is likely to be appealed by the tribe. Tribal officials did not offer immediate comment following Saylor’s ruling.

For now, a regional planning agency, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission [MVC], is planning to move forward in its review of the project. Two key issues that may come up at MVC meetings are traffic concerns and environmental impact from the gaming venue.

Earlier this month, the MVC began its hearings on the casino project. Official representatives from the tribe did not attend.

Town Administrator Responds

In a statement released to Casino.org, Jeffrey Madison, Aquinnah Town Administrator, said, “We in Aquinnah are very pleased to know that the proposed Class II gaming hall will be required to secure all necessary permits for construction.”

I see it as a victory in the sense that the development will move forward in a manner that protects the sensitive environmental beauty of the Aquinnah community. I would be surprised if the tribe did not seek to appeal [Judge] … Saylor’s decision,” Madison added.

He further explained Aquinnah “will handle the development in a manner similar to any other proposed activity, including enforcement of zoning restrictions.”

The tribe had argued it did not need local permits because of the rules included in the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The tribe began clearing the property in February. Electricity to the site was cut in March because the tribe had not gotten an inspection from the town, with the tribe saying it wants to use its own inspector.

Construction of the gambling hall is expected to take six months to complete. Plans call for a 10,000-square-foot gambling venue that will feature 250 electronic games.

It will be a Class I and II casino under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act — meaning traditional slot machines and table games won’t be permitted. For the tribe to offer slots and tables, it would need to enter a gaming compact with the state.

It is tentatively being called the Aquinnah Cliffs Casino.