The Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe may learn within 30 days whether the federal government will back its bid to open a casino in Taunton, a development that could clear up uncertainty surrounding the state’s Southeastern Massachusetts casino license.
Tribal representatives expressed optimism over an Aug. 21 letter from the US Bureau of Indian Affairs informing the tribe that a decision is imminent, even though the letter does not indicate how the bureau will rule.
“This is a sign of progress in that the tribe’s application is being worked on and it remains a priority,” said Arlinda Locklear, the Washington-based attorney representing the tribe. “It is a hopeful sign, but it doesn’t tell us what the decision is or when exactly it will be made.”
Tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell said he anticipates a favorable decision.
“We have always been confident in our prospects,” he said.
The Mashpee Wampanoag are asking the federal government to take 150 acres of land in Taunton into trust for them, and to declare it as reservation land, which would allow them to exercise their rights as a federally recognized tribe to open a casino.
Uncertainty surrounding the tribe’s casino proposal has impeded the state Gaming Commission’s effort to award the third and final resort casino license authorized under the 2011 state casino law.
That license is reserved for the Southeastern Massachusetts region, which includes the tribe’s reservation in Mashpee and the land it hopes to acquire in Taunton. When lawmakers enacted the state casino law, they envisioned awarding the license to the Mashpee.
For years, the Gaming Commission delayed consideration of commercial casino proposals for that region in deference to the Mashpee, but when tribal plans appeared to become entangled in conflicting legal rulings, the commission agreed to forge ahead with alternative proposals.
Developers of casino proposals for sites in Brockton and New Bedford submitted detailed bids for the license this year, and residents in each city voted in favor of welcoming casinos to their cities. But the prospect of the Mashpee breaking through the bureaucratic logjam in Washington continued to cast a shadow.
Last month, KG Urban, a New York-based developer, announced it would withdraw its bid for a casino in New Bedford, after having spent $10 million and eight years pursuing it. The developer said it could not obtain adequate financing, in part due to the possibility of future competition from a tribal casino in Taunton. That leaves a consortium including Brockton racetrack owner George Carney as the only remaining applicant, but Gaming Commission has not indicated whether it would award to the license to the group.
Under the terms of an agreement between the state and the Mashpee, a tribal casino in Taunton would pay to the state a 17 percent tax on its revenues, compared to 25 percent that would be paid by a commercial operator.
In its two-page letter, the Bureau of Indian Affairs invited Taunton city officials to offer any comments on the tribe’s application within 30 days. A decision on whether to approve the application will come at some time after the close of that comment period, Locklear said.
“It’s a good sign that they are working on it,” Locklear said. “But it’s not a commitment to a specific date for a decision.”
Mashpee tribe awaits land decision more than three years after Taunton casino vote
By Andy Metzger State House News Service
Posted Aug. 26, 2015 at 10:52 AM Updated at 6:16 PM
BOSTON — The long, closed-door review of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's land-in-trust application is still proceeding in the U.S. Department of the Interior, which notified Taunton officials Friday of a 30-day comment period on a related matter.
News has been sparse since the "landless" tribe submitted its application to the federal government in early 2013 and Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell hailed the latest bureaucratic step.
"We have always been confident in our prospects. However, this letter is not a final decision, but an indication that the process continues to move forward," Cromwell said in a statement.
The tribe is seeking federal approval for its application to establish a reservation by way of the government placing land in trust in Taunton and the town of Mashpee.
If the federal government takes tribal land into trust, that would pave the way for a tribal casino at what is now a Taunton office park near the junction of routes 140 and 24.
The land-in-trust application has been the main hurdle in the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's bid for a resort casino. The tribe was the first to gain a favorable vote in a local referendum, a non-binding vote in June 2012, less than a year after the casino law was passed. In April 2013, the tribe said it expected reviews and hearings on the land-in-trust application would be complete later that year with a decision coming out soon afterwards.
The federal government's initial rejection of a gaming compact between the tribe and the state combined with the lengthy land-in-trust review process and skepticism about whether it would be approved led the Gaming Commission to proceed with a commercial casino licensing process for the southeastern region.
A proposal by Rush Street Gaming to build a resort casino on the Brockton Fairgrounds is now the only remaining commercial casino proposal for the region, known as Region C.
The commission is vetting the Brockton proposal and "will also take into consideration the totality of factors affecting Region C before making a final license," according to spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll.
Separate from the process established by the state, the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head is aiming to defeat a federal lawsuit so it can proceed with plans to build a tribe-sanctioned gaming facility on Martha's Vineyard, where tribal land is already held in trust.
Thirty days after Friday's letter to Taunton, about Sept. 20, the Bureau of Indian Affairs may issue a reservation proclamation, said Arlinda Locklear, an attorney for the tribe who said the proclamation would only apply if land-in-trust is granted.
Locklear told the News Service a reservation would qualify the tribe for federal programs and would not have bearing on the casino, which would be allowed if land-in-trust and what is called an "initial reservation" is granted.
The tribe wants to make a reservation on 170 acres spread around Mashpee and 151.7 acres for the Taunton complex.
The only remaining step in the related but separate land-in-trust application is issuance of a record of decision, according to a Delahunt Group consultant for the tribe.
Locklear said the process underway at the Bureau of Indian Affairs "doesn't preview" what the government will decide to do about land in trust, a decision she hopes is forthcoming soon.
"They hope to get a decision out sooner rather than later," Locklear said.
Decision Clearing a Path for Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Casino Imminent
August 26, 2015
MASHPEE – A decision from federal officials that would pave the way for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe to build a casino resort in Taunton is now imminent.
A letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to Taunton City Council President Estele Borges indicated that a land-into-trust decision would be announced within 30 days.
The tribe needs the federal government to put land into trust before they can move forward with their $500 million plan, called “Project First Light.”
The process to designate the land has been underway for several years and is one of the last hurdles the Wampanoag tribe faces before moving ahead with the casino.
“The Bureau of Indian Affairs is informing the City of Taunton that they will be making a decision regarding a possible reservation declaration, so the city is given an opportunity to provide comment,” said Mark Forest, a tribal consultant on land into trust issues and former aide to Congressmen Gerry Studds and William Delahunt.
The tribe’s land into trust application requests the Bureau of Indian Affairs to proclaim 321 acres in Barnstable and Bristol Counties as the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Reservation.
“These lands are currently pending a decision by the Secretary to accept title in the name of the United States to be held in trust for the use and benefit of the tribe,” said Department of the Interior Acting Regional Director Johanna Blackhair in the letter to Taunton officials.
The letter represents the closest the Mashpee tribe has ever come to securing final approval to build a casino in Massachusetts.
“During the review process, they’re very quiet, they’re very silent. They don’t really say or announce much of anything. Now that we’re getting to the point where they’re out in the open asking municipal officials to make some futher comments, it’s certainly an encouraging development,” said Forest.
Federally recognized Native American tribes are allowed to build casinos on native land, or land that has been taken into federal trust.
A holdup for the Mashpee tribe has been a previous Supreme Court decision that put into limbo whether land could be taken into trust for tribes recognized after 1934, when the Indian Reorganization Act was ratified.
Forest said they don’t think that’s going to be a problem.
“There’s been a longstanding relationship between the federal government, the state government and the tribe, so that’s not going to be issues, at least from out point of view,” said Forest.
While the Wampanoags only won their federal recognition in 2007, other tribes who have proven they were under federal jurisdiction before 1934 have still been able to get land into trust.
“This notification action is simply an administrative function which is required before the tribe may take advantage of special federal assistance programs for lands held in trust for Indian tribes. In addition, this action clarifies tribal jurisdiction over the trust property,” Blackhair wrote in her letter.
The 2011 law that legalized casino gambling in Massachusetts provided for a casino in eastern and western Massachusetts, a slots-only casino, and a casino set-aside for a federally recognized Native American tribe.
MGM Resorts is planning a casino for Springfield, while Wynn Resorts is looking to build a gaming resort in Everett. The slots-only casino has already opened in Plainville.
The state’s gaming commission has also been considering the possibility of issuing another commercial casino license for southeastern Massachusetts in the event the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe was unable to get federal recognition.