Martha’s Vineyard Tribe Agrees to Stop Construction on Gaming Venue as Wampanoag Courtroom Challenges Loom

Posted on: July 20, 2019, 08:29h. 

Last updated on: July 20, 2019, 08:43h.

Leaders of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) promised this week they will halt construction on their Martha’s Vineyard bingo hall. But compliance with a new local order came only after the Massachusetts tribe worked on foundation walls and footings.

Early construction on a Martha’s Vineyard gaming venue was stopped this week after the Wampanoag Tribe agreed to comply with an Aquinnah town order. (Image The Vineyard Gazette)

A local building inspector, Leonard Jason Jr., was allowed by the tribe to visit the construction site earlier this week. Based on what he saw, Jason issued a cease and desist order — which requires the Wampanoag to stop all construction on the site and not resume any building until getting needed approvals.

I personally observed the construction of footings and foundation walls, and observed the presence of rebar,” Jason said in the order, quoted by The Vineyard Gazette. “The … activities require a building permit from the town, which has not been sought or issued.”

Construction of the venue is the subject of pending litigation. The tribe disputes a recent ruling by federal Judge Dennis Saylor IV that the project requires local permits.

The tribe is also seeking a stay of Saylor’s ruling. If a stay is granted, it may allow construction to resume.

Saylor said last month the tribe must comply with the local and state permitting process. However, the judge agreed the tribe can operate the casino on its sovereign property.

In a recent Boston federal court filing, the tribe’s attorney said the Wampanoags “will be irreparably harmed if the stay is denied.” The tribe needs gaming revenue “to provide essential governmental services to its members.”

The tribe also estimates it will receive between $3 million and $5 million a year from casino revenue. “Every day of delay is a delay in funding essential health services, education, housing, social services, cultural protection, police and fire protection, EMT services … and a multitude of other government services,” attorneys for the tribe claimed in a court document.

Federal Court Appeal Pending

The tribe is also appealing Saylor’s ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeals. The tribe’s attorneys contend the project does not require local permits but instead needs to comply with requirements found in the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Aquinnah Town Administrator Jeffrey Madison reported to the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday the tribe “continues to work on the casino…. That is in total contravention of the injunction that the federal court issued two weeks ago.”

Tribe Proceeded Out of Safety Concerns

But later this week, Wampanoag Tribal Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said the construction that had been done was for safety reasons. “Our position is that while the tribe and the town disagree on what work needs to be completed in order to ensure the construction site is secured safely, the tribe remains committed to ensuring the safety of the site,” Andrews-Maltais was quoted by the Vineyard Gazette.

“We are fully complying with the court order and will continue to do so pending our appeal,” she added. “The tribe is discussing available options to ensure site safety with the town, and we’re optimistic that we will reach an agreement soon.”

Lael Echo-Hawk, an attorney with MThirtySix PLLC, a tribal advocacy group representing the Aquinnah tribe, said in a letter sent to one of the town’s attorneys, “We want to be clear that the tribe’s actions since the issuance of the final judgment have been to shut down the site and to do so in a manner that protects public safety,” the Vineyard Gazette reported.

Attorneys for the town are attempting to arrange a meeting with Echo-Hawk. The project has already been discussed by members of the regional Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC).

But because the application was incomplete, the MVC recently voted unanimously to deny the casino project. It can still be resubmitted with more details.

Land was cleared in February for the venue. Electricity to the site was cut in March because the tribe had not gotten an inspection from the town, but the tribe said it wanted to use its own inspector.

“We will see what happens next,” Jeffrey Madison told the selectmen during this week’s meeting, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Times. “The tribe has contemptuously ignored the court order to this point.”