Court ruling blocks tribe's casino plan

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / March 1, 2009
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Casino opponents in the Middleborough area were calling it a great day for their side when the US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that land cannot be placed in trust by Indian tribes that were federally recognized after 1934.

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which wants to build a billion-dollar casino resort in Middleborough, achieved federal recognition in 2007.

"The decision puts a huge roadblock up for the tribe's plan to build a casino in Middleborough," said Rich Young, president of the local anticasino group Casino Facts and the statewide group called Casino Free Mass.

But others were more cautious, saying the ruling could turn out to be more of a delay than a death knell for the casino.

"I think Congress will do a quick fix to deal with tribes already granted land into trust," said former Middleborough selectman Adam Bond, who helped negotiate the deal between the town and the Wampanoag tribe. "Otherwise, what do you do, revoke it?"

Unless Congress makes some adjustments to federal laws governing the placement of land into trust for Indian tribes, progress on pending casino proposals will be brought to a halt by the court's decision, which was based on its interpretation of the federal Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

The Mashpee Wampanoag have an application under review by the Department of the Interior to place 140 acres in Mashpee and 500 acres in Middleborough into federal trust. The casino is planned for the Middleborough tract.

Dennis Whittlesey, the Washington lawyer who helped forge the multimillion-dollar agreement between Middleborough and the Wampanoag, agreed with Young's assessment. Based on the current ruling, there is only one way for the tribe to move forward, Whittlesey said.

"It would have to be determined that they were a recognized tribe under federal jurisdiction in 1934," he said. "And that would be very difficult to do."

The only other solution would be for Congress to change the legislation affecting tribes.

"Absent that legislative fix, the Middleborough project can't go anywhere," Whittlesey said.

For Young and other opponents of the Middleborough casino plan, Whittlesey's comments are reassuring.

"Everyone had tried to claim that a casino in Middleborough was inevitable - that was a lie," Young said. "Our job now is to lobby Congress and to make sure Governor Patrick continues his opposition to a tribe-run casino."

Frederick Eayrs, another former Middleborough selectman, said he thinks the ruling will finish the local casino proposal.

"I think the likelihood of it being resurrected is pretty slim," Eayrs said. "We're looking at something that's DOA."

Eayrs recalled the bitter arguments between groups supporting and opposing the casino back in 2007 that tore the rural community in two. All that infighting, he said, turned out to be irrelevant.

"The pro- and anti-casino factions have amounted to nothing," Eayrs said. "This was ultimately decided by something outside Middleborough."

Nancy Yeatts, the Lakeville selectwoman who chairs the Regional Task Force on Casino Impacts, said the ruling takes some pressure off the 18-town consortium, which has been meeting for the last year and a half.

"Hopefully, this will at least slow everything down a bit so we can take a breath," Yeatts said.

The group had just recently assigned subcommittees to research more fully the effects of a casino on the communities surrounding Middleborough.

But Bond said he believes that even though the casino proposal may be stalled, it is far from dead. He is confident Congress will take action.

As for tribes with land-into-trust applications pending, like the Wampanoag, Bond said, the fact that the tribes pay federal taxes will influence decision-making in Washington.

"Right now, what does the federal government need?" Bond asked. "Money. There will be some jockeying and posturing, and it will take a little cajoling, but the casino lobbyists will convince Congress to allow recognized tribes to take the land into trust."

In any case, Bond said, he believes Middleborough was right to cut its multimillion-dollar casino deal with the tribe back in 2007.

"All that's happened is we are a little richer," he said.

Under the terms of the agreement, the tribe has been making payments to the town to cover the cost to study ways to address the effect of the casino on the local infrastructure. If a casino opens, the town is slated to get $7 million a year.

"And if a casino doesn't come, we won't be sucked up into some vortex and disappear," Bond said. "We were just covering ourselves with that agreement."

Patrick Rogers, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said his board would have no comment on how the Supreme Court's decision may affect the casino plan.

"We'd like to see the Wampanoag go forward, but we really can't deal with these continuing legal decisions," Rogers said. "It's like a soap opera that just goes on and on. We are not part of it. We have a town to run."

He said the town's biggest issue right now isn't the casino.

"We just hired a new fire chief, and we will be hiring a new police chief," he said.

The $500,000 in payments from the tribe has resulted in some major studies of the town's infrastructure, Rogers said. "We've looked at the town's water and waste-water treatment needs, and we've done a study of ambulance service," he said.

"From our point of view, this is just a developer who has proposed a project for the town," Rogers said. "We don't want to add to the mix by starting to interpret the Supreme Court decision. Whatever happens with the Wampanoag, we wish them luck."

Christine Legere can be reached at

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