A federal appeals court on Monday threw out a lower court ruling that had prevented the Shinnecock Indian Nation from using the tribe-owned Hampton Bays property known as Westwoods for a casino development, as the tribe proposed in 2003.
The ruling, however, did not overturn the 2008 ruling by Judge Joseph Bianco, which rejected the tribe’s argument that the 79-acre Westwoods property must be considered sovereign tribal lands, making it eligible for a casino development under federal regulations. The tribe’s attorneys appealed Judge Bianco’s ruling but stated in their arguments that the tribe has no intention of pursuing a gaming facility at Westwoods anymore.
The ruling instead said that the case should never have been argued in a federal court in the first place, because the issues that sparked the complaint by Southampton Town and New York State—zoning regulations, environmental protection and the state’s ban on gambling—were not subjects of federal jurisdiction. The court ruled that the case, which was the subject of a nearly five-year legal battle between the tribe, state and town, should have been heard in state court rather than federal court. The case will be remanded back to a state court, though it is unclear whether either side will pick up the fight again.
Nonetheless, the tribe immediately seized on the ruling—which, at least in theory, brings the Westwoods property back into play—as an opportunity to renew pressure on Governor Andrew Cuomo to discuss the tribe’s desire to build a casino elsewhere on Long Island or in the outskirts of New York City. The governor has been dismissive of the tribe’s plans and its need to negotiate a compact with the state before it could open a casino, saying that the Shinnecocks must wait until a state constitutional amendment expanding legalized gambling in the state has been approved, and then, potentially, submit their casino plans for consideration alongside private entities.
“Now that the Nation has been federally recognized as an Indian tribe and has been freed from the effects of that judgment and injunction, we again ask Governor Cuomo to sit down with the Nation to discuss how the Nation and the state can move forward together,” a statement released by the tribe on Monday afternoon reads.
Tribal Trustee Lance Gumbs said later that getting the injunction lifted was perhaps most important as a psychological win for the tribe, even if the practical impacts of the victory are lessened by the tribe’s new direction regarding gaming, which targets properties elsewhere in Suffolk County and farther west. The ruling said that the case should be re-argued—if the two sides see fit—in a state court, where it started out almost a decade ago.
“It takes the injunction off the land, and that was one of the important things to the tribe,” said Mr. Gumbs, who was the voice and face of the tribe when the battle over Westwoods started with the rumbling of bulldozers on Newtown Road. “It’s not about the casino, it’s about having the freedom to do things over there we’ve always done. His ruling was dead wrong.”
On a sweltering Saturday morning in June 2003—six months after the tribe and developer Ivy K. Ong began an attempted end run around federal regulations leading to construction of a casino at Westwoods, on the basis of the tribe’s centuries of dealings with New York State—bulldozers started clearing trees at Westwoods, a broad swath of woods bisected by Sunrise Highway and bounded by residential neighborhoods and towering sand bluffs overlooking Peconic Bay.
By the time Judge Bianco ruled that Westwoods was off the table as a possible casino site five years later, tribal leaders had admitted that they had never wanted to build at their cherished retreat, used for camping, picnics and ceremonies by tribe members. But, at the time, the tribe and Mr. Ong had sketches in hand of a 60,000-square-foot casino on the land, and designs for a Sunrise Highway exit leading to the property. With large men in shirts emblazoned with “Tribal Security” blocking the entrance to Westwoods, the bulldozers ultimately cleared almost 12 acres of woods before attorneys for the town and state got a temporary restraining order and State Police halted the bulldozers.
The lawsuit that followed pitted the town and state against the tribe in a convoluted morass of legal wrangling that had lawyers crawling through the cramped storage rooms of Southampton Town Hall in search of centuries-old documents from the earliest days of the pre-Colonial settlement.
The town and state’s stance was that the tribe had no right to build a casino at Westwoods, because the property was owned by the tribe but was not recognized sovereign tribal land, like the tribe’s 800-acre Shinnecock Neck reservation, and was therefore subject to restrictions of zoning and environmental regulation like any property would be.