The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs recommended Friday the Oneida Indian Nation should get more than 13,000 acres put into tax-free land-into-trust. The Nation had requested 17,370 acres.
The U.S. government’s announcement Friday it would like to place 13,000 acres of Oneida Indian Nation land into federal trust generated a variety of reactions.
To the Oneida Indian Nation, it offers an opportunity “to move beyond the negativity and toward a better community for all of us,” spokesman Mark Emery said.
To Oneida County, it represents an excessive amount of land that would become exempt from taxes and regulation, County Executive Anthony Picente said. Legal action is likely, officials said.
And to the Upstate Citizens for Equality, the government’s plan means its time to launch a legal and political clash over Indian land policies in Madison and Oneida counties.
“This is the kind of thing we’ve been waiting for,” group President David Vickers said. “What’s needed here is a knock-down drag-out fight.”
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs offered nine alternatives for the Nation’s three-year-old land-into-trust application.
The government’s preferred option would place 13,086 acres — including Turning Stone Resort and Casino — into trust.
The proposal represents thousands of acres more than local officials had expected, but about 4,000 acres less than the 17,000 acres the Nation applied for more than two years ago.
What does this mean for area counties?
That land would be free of state and local taxes and regulation. It would also create some jurisdictional checkerboarding of Indian and non-Indian land in portions of Oneida and Madison counties.
These areas are mainly near Turning Stone in Verona and near the Oneidas’ 32 acres of reservation land in the city of Oneida.
Impact on Nation businesses: In addition to the casino, the Nation’s economic linchpin, the Nation’s four golf courses would go into trust.
Nine of the Nation’s SavOn Gas stations and marina property in Sylvan Beach, however, are not included as trust properties in the federal government’s preferred alternative.
Impact on landowners: Dick Stanton, owner and broker of Dick Stanton Real Estate in Vernon, doesn’t believe this will hurt property values in western Oneida County.
“I think the tax base is going to be hurt, but individuals still have to live their lives,” he said, citing the need for people to purchase and sell land. “Right now, there's still a lot of good buyers in the marketplace.”
The plan could open the door for the Nation to place more land into trust at a later date, experts said.
Between now and March 24, there is a period of public comment.
The federal government’s final decision on the trust application is due on or after March 25.
Officials would have 30 days to take that decision to court before it becomes official.
Picente said Oneida County is considering that possibility.
“It’s excessive, so I would assume we would appeal at this point,” he said. “It’s probably too early to say that, but more than likely I think we would.”
U.S. Rep. Michael Arcuri, D-Utica, said if local officials decided to file suit against the decision, he would lend his voice.
Meanwhile, he and U.S. Rep. John McHugh, R-Watertown, will meet next week with James E. Cason, associate deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, to voice their objections to the plan.
“I think the grant the BIA made is excessive, and I think it is going to create devastating effects for us here locally and for the state and country as a whole,” Arcuri said.
What the document says
In its new study, the Bureau of Indian Affairs outlined nine options for the Oneida-owned land, but selected just one as the best.
Under that plan, 13,086 acres of land of the 17,370 the Oneidas wanted would be put into trust. The plan includes more than 9,000 acres of agricultural land.
In an earlier draft issued in November 2006, the bureau offered seven options ranging from putting no land into trust to allowing the Nation to put in up to 35,000 acres. There was also an alternative in which only casino-related property would be put into trust.
Among the nine options offered Friday were two new ones – the 13,086-acre preferred option and another suggested by Oneida and Madison counties to put 1,026 acres, including the casino, into trust.
In its executive summary, the bureau says its preferred course “represents a compromise action” and “reflects a focus on the immediate and shorter-term needs of the Nation to reestablish a sovereign homeland and on the New York State and local government’s request to consider a more compact and contiguous trust land grouping.”
Picente argued the decision was not a compromise, and instead favored the Oneidas.
“I think it’s unfairly balanced,” he said. “I don’t see 75 percent of the land being middle ground.”
The map of the preferred option shows there are several distinct parcels, and in some cases there would be non-trust lots in the middle of those parcels.
The Oneidas’ Emery said the Nation would have no statement other than the one stating the opportunity for cooperation.
The 13,086-acre plan hurts both Oneida and Madison counties, as well as neighboring businesses, some local leaders said.
Arcuri said the New York State Thruway passes through some of the parcels in Verona that could go into trust. That would raise questions about whether the Oneidas could charge tolls or alter the placement of exits, he said.
In the past, the Seneca Indians have threatened to blockade the Thruway in far western New York over disputes with Albany on sales-tax collections.
“There are clearly other issues that it opens a virtual Pandora’s box,” he said.
Madison County officials are not commenting yet.
The final impact document is more than 3,000 pages and needs to be reviewed further before commenting, Madison County attorney John Campanie said.
Vickers of Upstate Citizens for Equality said granting trust status for so much land will cause a breakdown in law enforcement locally.
“What’s happening before our very eyes is the federal government is creating an enclave where lawlessness will result,” Vickers said.
For years, local businesses, including gas stations and convenience stores, have expressed concern that the Nation’s stores can sell cheaper gas and cigarettes because they are not taxed by the state.
John MacDougall, president and chief executive officer of Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes Inc., said he was shocked at the 13,000-acre trust recommendation.
“That’s certainly a devastating blow to places like Verona and the taxpaying communities that are around these lands,” he said.
However, since the preferred option omits nine of the Nation’s SavOn stations as trust land, it can be seen as the only “silver lining,” he said.
If that proposal goes through, those stores could be subject to state regulations, including taxation, which would level the playing field, he said.
“Obviously we compete against the Oneida Nation in several locations in the area,” he said. “They are very difficult and impossible competitors to stand up against.”
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs recommended today the Oneida Indian Nation should get more than 13,000 acres put into tax-free land-into-trust.
The Nation had requested 17,370 acres.
The recommended 13,086 acres include the Turning Stone Casino & Resort and nearby lands.
The proposed alternative omits about 4,000 of the acres the Oneida Indian Nation originally requested for trust.
Some of the omissions include:
- Nine SavOn gas stations and convenience stores.
- 18 Nation member residential properties.
- Nation media relations, member services department and security offices.
“We are grateful for the Department of Interior’s hard work during this process,” said Mark F. Emery, director of media relations for the Oneida Indian Nation. “Now is a good time to move beyond the negativity and toward a better community for all of us.”
The bureau’s preferred option includes approximately 13,086 acres in two relatively condensed clusters, one centered around the Turning Stone Resort & Casino and the other with a focus surrounding the Nation’s 32-acre reservation area, according to the report.
“In both groupings, the great majority of properties included are directly adjacent to another Nation-owned property,” the report reads.
A final decision on the trust application is due on or after March 25. There is a 30-day appeal period following the issuance of the decision. The decision will be implemented if there’s no appeal 31 days after the decision is issued.
The Oneidas had grouped their properties into three sections. The first grouping included 3,428 acres that are associated with the casino. The second was 6,475 acres related to the Nation’s government and cultural facilities. The third was 7,467 acres of undeveloped or agricultural land and land also claimed by the Stockbridge Munsee Community of Wisconsin.
In the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, released in 2006, the Bureau of Indian Affairs outlined seven possible alternatives, ranging from placing 35,000 acres into trust to none.
Madison and Oneida counties suggested an alternative that would place 1,026 acres in trust and created certain conditions.
The option the Bureau of Indian Affairs now calls its preferred plan was not in the original draft.
Madison County officials decline comment until they have a chance to review the study.