Wampanoag Tribal Casino on Hold

The Wampanoag Tribe has been fighting the Martha’s Vineyard town of Gay Head over its plans for a Vegas casino for years.  Now a federal judge has come down on the side of Gay Head in a ruling that obligates the Wampanoag Tribe to adhere to local permits for the construction of its Aquinnah Cliffs casino.

Wampanoag Casino Development Plans

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is a federally recognized tribe based in the town of Aquinnah in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. The tribe received federal recognition in 1987. 

The tribe’s claim to land on the island of Martha's Vineyard was settled with an agreement by the state, the United States Department of Interior and an act of Congress. The agreement saw the government take 485 acres of Tribal Lands into trust. After the state of Massachusetts passed a law that legalized gambling in 2011 the Wampanoag began to develop plans to open a Class III facility on its tribal lands.

The governor and other parties opposed  approving the Wampanoag tribe’s proposed plan to adapt an existing building for a boutique casino. The Town of Aquinnah and the state challenged the plans in federal district court.  In 2016 the tribe, in conjunction  with the Department of Interior, appealed to the US Court of Appeals, First Circuit.

The Court ruled against the tribe, saying that the tribe was subject to state and local gambling regulations. Judge J. Dennis Saylor IV determined that, due to the tribe’s lack of police, firefighting staff or ambulance service, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) does not have “sufficient governmental control” over its reservation to manage a casino.

Meanwhile, the Department of Interior took the tribe’s side. The Department and the tribe jointly appealed Saylor’s ruling to the U.S. Appeals Court First District while the tribe announced that it would begin construction of the Aquinnah Cliffs Casino. Towns of Gay Head and Chilmark opposed the construction. 

Latest Rulings

The case was returned to Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV who handed down his ruling in July 2019.  Saylor wrote that the court has entered a final judgment since the tribe failed to appeal that portion of his ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeals. The judgment states that any such facility is “otherwise subject to state and local regulation, including any applicable permitting requirements....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.” 

According to a Wampanoag spokesperson, the tribe is contending that, under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, they are not obligated to obtain local permits for the project to be built on reservation lands.

Construction on the casino began but in April 2019 building was halted. A lawyer for the town of Gay Head, Ronald Rappaport, said  “The court specifically held that while the tribe can game, it is still subject to all state and local laws and regulations to the construction and operation of a commercial building, which means building permits, etc. — that also means the Martha’s Vineyard Commission….the town is very, very pleased with the result.”

Jim Newman, a selectman in Aquinnah, commented, “I wish it had not come to this, because we tried, I personally tried many times, to sit down and talk to them over this. We were not out to stop the casino. I’m sorry this is what it had to come to.” Newman responded to tribal claims that the demand to adhere to local building codes and obtain proper permits was just the latest attempt to block the project. Newman says that town officials want to sit down with representatives of the tribe to better understand the project and what impact it might have on town services.

“In all honesty, [blocking the casino] was never the case on the part of the administration and the selectmen,” said Newman. “That was never the intent. Very shortly after the Supreme Court rejected our appeal, I went and said, ‘How can we work together?’” 

Moving Forward

After the latest court ruling the Wampanoag Tribe did reach an agreement with the town so that it could move ahead in its attempts to build a casino in Gay Head. The town approved safety arrangements that will enable the Wampanoag Tribe to reinforce or build new fences to prevent anyone from entering the property, place coverings on exposed rebars and place barriers or coverings over trenches.

The Martha’s Vineyard Times reported that “The tribe will proceed with its proposed limited plan to render the site safe and preserve work done to date …,” the agreement between the town and the Wampanoags says, the newspaper reported. “Under the plan, the tribe is being allowed to pour concrete and backfill trenches ‘such that rebar steel is not exposed in a manner that risks serious injury or impalement.’”

The actions to secure the site are a first step that will allow the tribe to eventually build their casino. Wampanog chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said that “since the court’s decision in June, the tribe has been attempting to safely secure the construction site. We are happy that despite the town’s insistence to the contrary, the court understood that the site was dangerously unsafe if left as it is, and granted our request to move forward.”

The agreement between the town and the tribe allows for a town building inspector and engineer to come to the property to oversee the improvements.  The tribe’s plans call for the bingo hall to be supported by an 11,000-square-foot concrete slab for the venue’s foundation that will support an approximate 10,000-square-foot gambling venue.

The hall is intended to feature 250 electronic games. In the meantime, US District Court Magistrate Judge M. Page Kelley has been named by Saylor as a mediator who can intervene if further disagreements arise between the tribe and the town regarding the construction of the casino. 

The tribe estimates it could take in between $3 million and $5 million a year from gaming revenue once the casino begins to operate.

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