Wampanoag Tribe Must Work with Massachusetts Locals for Martha’s Vineyard Gambling

Posted on: February 26, 2021, 09:46h. 

Last updated on: February 26, 2021, 11:35h.

A federal court has ruled that a Massachusetts tribe must work with local authorities on Martha’s Vineyard in building its gambling hall.

Massachusetts Martha's Vineyard casino tribe
Aquinnah residents are seen here during their annual meeting last June. Local officials and community members in the Massachusetts town have expressed opposition to a gambling venue on Martha’s Vineyard. (Image: Vineyard Gazette)

The US First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head must adhere to local planning and zoning rules in Aquinnah. It’s the latest legal decision in a controversial case that dates back to 2013.

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head is one of two federally recognized tribes in Massachusetts. The tribe’s sovereign land is located on the most western end of Martha’s Vineyard. The tribe argued that it did not have to obtain relevant permits from the town since it’s building on its own sovereign land.

Officials on the tranquil island, an idyllic summer vacation hotspot for New Englanders, don’t want to gamble. But being a recognized tribe, the Wampanoag have the federal authority to conduct Class II gaming operations on its sovereign land.

The tribe wants to build a 10,000-square-foot electronic bingo facility. Class II gaming constitutes bingo-based games.

The gaming venue would not be able to offer slot machines or table games, as that constitutes Class III gaming. The state has refused to enter into a Class III gaming compact with the tribe to allow those games commonly found in traditional casinos.

Town Victory

The federal court’s decision provides town officials in Aquinnah and Gay Head regulatory powers regarding the gambling hall’s construction. The tribe has argued that giving the town authority of its construction and operation allows area leaders to stall, and perhaps even fully prevent, the gaming venue from coming to realization.

[We are] obviously disappointed in the court’s wrongful decision supporting the town’s continued persecution of the tribe’s rights,” tribal council chair Cheryl Andrews-Maltais told the Martha’s Vineyard Times.

“We will continue to press forward in asserting our right to conduct tribal gaming as an option for providing for our tribal members,” Andrews-Maltais said. “However, we need to remember that nothing about this opinion changes the fact that the tribe can conduct gaming on our settlement lands, and the decision further makes clear that neither the town nor the Martha’s Vineyard Commission can use the permitting process to stop the tribe’s gaming facility from opening.”

Judge Orders Collaboration

The tribe says the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association is purposely dragging its feet in issuing the gambling hall project the appropriate permits. The Circuit Court ruling urges the two sides to come together to find a resolution.

The ruling also states that neither the town nor the Martha’s Vineyard Commission should use planning and zoning regulations to interfere with the project.

“A motion could be filed should the tribe conclude that it has a basis to maintain that local regulations as applied by the town turn out to interfere with the integral activities of gaming in a manner or to an extent not anticipated by the district. The town may not enforce its laws ‘in a nonneutral way in order to unduly burden or harass the tribe or to prevent them from opening the casino,'” the opinion concluded.