Oneida land trust application moves ahead with BIA hearings

Gina Mushynsky
1/18/06

VERONA, N.Y. -- The Oneida Indian Nation of New York's land-into-trust
application process took another step forward with two public meetings that
prompted sometimes impassioned commentary from capacity crowds.

BIA representatives heard hours of comments on the environmental --
including social and economic -- impact of placing the Oneida's 17,370
acres of land into trust.

Hundreds of nation supporters, including tribal members and employees of
Turning Stone Resort and Casino and other nation enterprises, often drowned
out the handful of speakers who spoke against the action. Opponents of the
land-trust action feared that exempting the Oneidas from paying property
taxes would create inequality between the nation and the surrounding
communities.

Approximately 4,500 people are employed by OIN, most of them at the casino.

In its March 2005 City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York
decision, the Supreme Court ruled that OIN could not unilaterally assert
its sovereignty, and therefore was not immune from paying local property
taxes on land repurchased within the boundaries of its historic
reservation. The court noted that the nation could, however, have the land
placed into trust as a way of continuing its tax-exempt status. The Oneidas
submitted a land into trust application shortly thereafter, while local
officials sent property tax bills amounting to more than $400 million.

If the acreage is taken into trust, OIN will be able to maintain its
tax-exempt status -- a major financial issue for local municipalities in an
otherwise economically weak region. OIN is the region's largest employer.

If the BIA doesn't take the land, which includes Turning Stone's location,
into trust, the land would be subject to New York state laws, which could
include the termination of all Class III gaming activity.

Some speakers said the "checkerboarding" of jurisdictions might endanger
the well-being of employees and visitors at nation-owned businesses, noting
that there would be no guarantee of uniformity of codes and regulations
between the state and the tribe. Others extended invitations to further
negotiations.

One, Assemblyman David Townsend, suggested the state create a "footprint"
reservation immediately surrounding the casino, citing precedence with the
state's establishment of the Shinnecock Indian Nation's reservation in
1703.

The lands in question comprise less than 2 percent of the land area of
either Oneida or Madison counties.

The bureau will examine the issues brought up at the meeting and determine
which should be studied during the process of preparing the environmental
impact statement. A record of decision is expected by October this year,
with the final decision tentatively set for January 2007.

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